One morning, a box was delivered to Elizabeth Stone’s door. It held ten years of personal diaries and a letter that began: Dear Elizabeth, You must be wondering why I left you my diaries in my will. After all, we have not seen each other in over twenty years . . .
What followed was an extraordinary year in Elizabeth’s life as she read Vincent’s diaries and began to learn about the high school student she taught in Brooklyn twenty-five years before. A Boy I Once Knew is the story of the man Vincent had become and one woman’s journey to understanding him more deeply—and along the way, understanding herself.
With his diaries, Vincent becomes a constant presence in Elizabeth’s household. She follows his daily life in San Francisco and his travels abroad. She watches him deal with the deaths of friends in the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. She judges him. She gets angry with him. She develops affection and compassion for him. In some ways, she brings him back to life. And in doing so, she becomes the student, and Vincent the teacher. He forces her to examine her life as well as his, challenges her feelings and fears about death—and ultimately, proves to her that relationships between two people can deepen even after one of them is gone.
“A meditation on memory and how a story can be a form of immortality.” —Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
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THE BELL RANG THE first thing in the morning, even before the coffee was on. At my front door was the mailman, who handed me a large carton, its return address in blue block letters telling me it was from Vincent in San Francisco. This was odd. In the twenty-five years since I had been Vincent's ninth-grade English teacher at New Utrecht High School, he had never sent me anything but a Christmas card, though he had rarely missed a year. The last card — "Van Eyck's Gabriel," it said on the back — was still propped up on a bookshelf in my living room. As usual, it didn't say much, just "Dear Elizabeth" above the printed message and "Love, Vincent" below, but on the back, he'd drawn a circle around "Gabriel," the name of my younger son, so I knew he'd chosen the card for me.
When you're a teacher, some students burst out at you immediately, most emerge gradually, and a few don't want you to see them at all. By December, Vincent had never raised his hand, and although his serious brown eyes met mine from time to time, when I called on him, he merely shrugged.
It was a gray day in Brooklyn, and I'd assigned my English class O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," set on a long-ago Christmas Eve in Manhattan. It was about Jim and Della, young newlyweds who wanted to give each other the perfect Christmas present. They had very little money, and those who read all the way through knew that they did find the right gifts for each other, but only after Jim pawned his heirloom gold watch to buy Della the jewel-rimmed tortoiseshell combs she'd so admired, and Della cut and sold her long hair so she could buy Jim a platinum watch fob.
It was a touching story, and as the kids thudded their textbooks onto their desktops and shuffled around for the right page, I waited, curious as to what it had meant to them. At twenty-two, I was still a very new teacher, nervous and chronically overprepared, so the night before, I had written up a long list of questions to get the discussion going. But before I could ask even one of my questions, Vincent shot his hand up into the air. Then without waiting for me to call on him, he announced that he hated the ending, just hated it.
"How could anyone write something so stupid?" he said, his eyes flashing indignantly. "They spent all that money on presents that turned out to be useless, and they probably can't even exchange them."
Vincent glared at me as if their predicament might be my fault. At fourteen, he was slight and dark, with bony arms, pointy features, and a lock of hair that wouldn't stay out of his eyes. Now he flung his head in a way that was part hair management and part annoyance.
I was startled by his passion. "Do you think Jim and Della felt the way you do?"
Before Vincent could answer, Freddy Murphy, who had been waving his arm like a windshield wiper in a storm, spoke up. "I think they felt bad, but maybe Della can wear the combs even with short hair." He was a small boy with glasses who sat right in front of Vincent.
Vincent scowled at the back of Freddy's head, while Freddy, oblivious to this show of disapproval, happily continued. "Or maybe Jim can return the combs and get his watch back."
At this, Vincent rolled his eyes. "That's dumb," he muttered.
Freddy was a small round cheerful sort, whose twosmall round cheerful parents had shown up to meet me a few weeks earlier at New Utrecht High School's Open School Night as had most of the parents, or at least mothers, of the kids in the class. Vincent was one of the few whose parents had not shown up. No note from them, no explanation from him.
Despite their different styles, Freddy was the only person I had ever seen Vincent talk to. They didn't seem to be friends, but with each lacking the rambunctious ease of the other boys, they appeared to be less uncomfortable with each other than with anyone else.
The class was now silent. "Any other thoughts?" I asked.
Another student raised her hand. "Well, maybe what really matters to them isn't the present but that they showed how much they loved each other."
That was the point of the story for most readers. Not for Vincent, though. Now he raised his hand so vigorously that I thought it would yank the rest of his body up with it. "That's ridiculous!" he said, pronouncing it ree-diculous. "If you love someone, you want to get them something they really want." He stopped for a second. "And you want them to get you something you really like, too." Clearly, giving and receiving carried a charge for him. He flung his head back again.
Vincent's intensity brought the class to life that day and made me look closely at him for the first time. When the bell rang, he came up to my desk to rail about the ending of this "stupid story" at greater length. He stayed so long that he had to rush to his next class.
That was how my relationship with Vincent had begun, and now, twenty-five years later, here I stood in my living room, holding this carton from him.
"Don't you want to know what's in it?" said my husband, Reamy, prodding me.
I did, and so with me in robe and bare feet and with Reamy and our son Gabe flanking me, I slit the box's tape and lifted off the cover.
Inside were two or three stacks of red volumes, gold lettering on their spines.
I think I instantly knew what those volumes were and what their arrival meant, but I held the knowledge at bay, like someone blocking off a smell by breathing through her mouth. Before I was willing to know anything, I wanted Vincent to explain himself.
Slipped between the books, near the bottom of the carton was an envelope with "Elizabeth" written on it. Inside, on Vincent's letterhead, was a typed letter dated February 10, six weeks earlier. It read:
You must be wondering why I left you my diaries in my will. After all, we have not seen each other in over twenty years. Our only contact is our traditional Christmas cards, and yet I still feel connected to you.
Please be warned that some of the details can be raunchy and shocking. I probably should just destroy them, but they contain my thoughts, feelings, and desires of my life for the last ten years.
I was hoping that a book could be made into them and my only requirement is that my family's identity is never revealed. Also any profits should be given to my family, otherwise I leave all the details up to you.
I will understand if you decide not to accept this project. All I want is that they do not fall into the wrong hands.
One thing I will always regret is not seeing you one last time. Thank you.
Where Vincent should have signed his name — the part of him I knew best — there was only vast empty space. And that's when I understood: Vincent was dead. But how could he be? How could a living man tell me he was dead? And how could a dead man tell me he would "always" feel regret. It was impossible, and it made me dizzy. I set the box on the floor and sat down on the couch.
At the bottom of Vincent's letter were a few sentences in a neat, tight, and unfamiliar script, which I read aloud. "Vincent passed away the day I was to bring this typed letter for him to sign at the hospital. No one but you has the privilege of reading these diaries. Good luck, and please pray for Vincent that he rest in peace." It was signed "Carol."
"How did he die?" said Gabe.
"I don't know," I said. "Vincent's friend doesn't say." But AIDS crossed my mind right away. I'd long assumed that Vincent was gay, although he'd never said so. In all the time we'd exchanged cards, he'd never mentioned a wife or children or anyone else. During these years, Vincent had lived at only two different addresses on Clay. What I surmised, or at least hoped, was that Vincent was living a contented and companionable life with a vague someone else, a man somewhat like himself. As for me, in those same years, I had moved from the Village and then to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ten years ago, we'd left the city altogether for a house with a big front porch setbehind a dogwood tree in Montclair, New Jersey. All these years with scarcely a miss in the Christmas cards we tossed across the continent to one another.
But it occurred to me that maybe Vincent had not lived as I had hoped, and I wondered if Carol's request that I pray for Vincent to rest in peace went beyond convention. Had Vincent not lived in peace? I wondered as I returned the letter to its envelope. If there were any answers, they were in his box of diaries on my living room floor. But Vincent's death was new, my knowledge even newer, and the box suddenly felt to me like an open grave.
Still I had to know what happened. Scanning the spines, I found 1994 and 1995, took them out and skimmed the pages, feeling all the while like a grave robber. These were the last weeks of Vincent's life, and I squinted to keep out what I was trying to take in:
If I can just make it to Christmas ... it may be the last time I see my family. ... Huffed and puffed my way up the hill ... getting harder and harder. ... so cold, so hungry, so angry ... 112 pounds. ... No Christmas cards. Bummer. ... I get upset because the pretty people on TV are not in pain. I'm jealous of their happiness ... so tired, so cold ... cried myself to sleep ... can't speak. ... hard to swallow. ... can't use arm ... Angela called ... Sandra called ... so concerned & mother and father ditto. 108 pounds ... I wonder if they suspect their only son is a goner ... now I know how Eddy felt ... spoke with Adrienne. ..."
And then the confirmation. "She knows I have AIDS."
* * *
NEW UTRECHT HIGH SCHOOL, where I first met Vincent, is in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. It's a tidy neighborhood, now heavily Asian and Russian, but when Vincent was growing up, most of the students were Italian, as Vincent was, or Irish or Jewish. Some kids set out every morning from apartment houses, but most of the neighborhood was made up of small private homes set back from lawns each the size of a large beach blanket.
Even now, without a glance at the yearbook, I can remember at least half a dozen kids who were in Vincent's class and gave that class its character. There was Natalie, who insistently referred to the author of A Doll's House as "Isben." Then there was Charlie, short, blond, and handsome, who was going to be a TV cameraman like his father. Near him sat nervous Anthony, daily a one-man rhythm section with his finger-drumming, ballpoint-clicking, and heel-tapping. Off in a corner, when she wasn't cutting class, sat Jeannie, she of the Technicolor makeup, rolled-up skirts, gum wads, and fixed sullen scowl. And she surprised me on the very last day of class by dropping what turned out to be a very sweet card on my desk on the way out. "Don't read it till I'm out the door," she instructed me.
But after class on that chilly December day, it was Vincent I thought about as the subway clacked and grumbled its way back to Manhattan where I lived. The touching irony of the O. Henry story had been over his head, at least at the outset. Still, with Christmas only two weeks away, it was obvious that the story stirred up something personal for him. Was he was feeling the misery of a giver who desperately wants to please and fears he has failed? I didn't know.
"The Gift of the Magi" drew Vincent in, and the next day and the day after that, he sat straight up in his seat with that expression of his that was at once sweet, sour, and sorrowful. At the end of the class, the other kids filed out talking to each other with animation about the real concerns of their lives, while Vincent often stayed on to talk about the day's reading, even Silas Marner. ("It's not Mariner," I heard him tell Natalie irritably. "It's Marner! Silas Marner!") In all my five classes, he was the only person with any of the urgent but undefined hungers I remembered having when I was his age and starting at Madison High School a few neighborhoods away.
By the time spring came, Vincent and I had become pretty chatty. Sometimes he waited for me outside the building's main entrance at the end of eighth period so he could walk me to the subway, and I looked forward to seeing him there. I was lonesome at New Utrecht, maybe as much as he was. At twenty-two, I was closer in age to Vincent than to most of the teachers, and though I'd made two or three friends among the teachers, I didn't feel like I was part of the community.
Meanwhile, Vincent had become frankly curious about me. At what he thought were polite intervals, he pursued his suspicions, or possibly hopes, about my life beyond Bensonhurst, past and present.
"So you went to Berkeley right near San Francisco?"
"Yes," I said.
"And now you live in Greenwich Village?"
"Yes. First in the West Village and now in the South Village. You ever been there?"
Sullivan Street, where I lived in a newly renovated studio apartment, was in transition. The neighborhood was half SoHo already, filling up with newcomers like me, and half the frayed northernmost fringe of Little Italy, where the old women in black sat in front of their tenement buildings on the vinyl-covered chairs they dragged out of their kitchens, while down the street, in the park, the old men played the Italian bowling game bocce.
The faces of these old Italians were deeply familiar to me, even comforting. They reminded me of my mother's family, and especially my grandmother — all dark-eyed with the full rounded features common in Southern Italians. I had struck up acquaintanceships with a few. Millie made me "gravy" — tomato sauce — and Willie, the grocer next door, cashed checks up to twenty-five dollars for me. Louie with one lung was a fixture at Willie's, passing his days on a chair in front of the soups, a perpetually doleful expression on his face. Whenever he saw me, he told me that I should quit smoking.
Those first two years after college were the worst years of my life. As a senior, I had expected to pour myself into an already arranged future — I was going to marry Mark and join him at Indiana University. He was already in graduate school there, as I would be in the fall. But for a whole host of horrible reasons, nothing had worked out the way I expected, and in the fall, I was the spilt milk I was crying over, a splash without shape or direction. I started graduate school at New York University, but it felt wrong, and after a few weeks of half-hearted attendance and lots of doodling in the margins of my notebook, I dropped out.
Over the course of the next year, looking for something to mop myself up with, I wandered through various jobs — welfare case worker, bookstore clerk, administrative assistant in a noble nonprofit organization. I didn't care about any of them, or at least not enough, and at 5:00 P.M. I went home to my apartment on Barrow Street, which I shared with a parade of roommates as lost as I was.
In the fall of the second year, a friend of mine called to tell me about an ad she'd seen in the Times that morning. A high school for Hasidic Jewish girls in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn was looking for an English teacher. I had nothing better to do, so I called right away, speaking with the principal, a rabbi, who asked me to come in for an interview as soon as possible. Two hours later, I found myself in a small shabby building on Fifteenth Avenue looking for the rabbi's office. It was a hot Indian Summer day, and there was no air conditioning inside, but the girls going to and fro in the hallway, who glanced at me curiously, wore long sleeves, opaque white stockings, and skirts that came down to their calves.
The rabbi waved me to a seat across from him in his stuffy cluttered office. Hot as I was, he had to be feeling it more, with his long bushy beard, payos, and yarmulke. He was dressed in layers of black, except for his white shirt closed at the collar without any tie.
"We need an English teacher right away," the rabbi explained in heavily accented English. Then he squinted at me with an expression I took to be disapproving — I was dressed conservatively in a beige suit, but now that I was seated, my knees showed — and he asked me only two questions: Did I have more "modest" outfits, and did I have a college degree? In that order. When I said yes to both questions, he gave a nod of satisfaction, and then he offered me the job. The salary was abysmal, and there were no health care benefits (unless, as I would say later on, one counted prayer), but I accepted.
The next day I began my life as a teacher. If I was a character in search of my own story, these girls turned out to be my authors. Because the Hasidim relied so heavily on reading and analyzing the Torah, the word — almost any word, really — was sacred to them, and teachers — all teachers, even me — were held in reverential regard. So the girls responded rapturously and ravenously to Shakespeare, Keats, Salinger, Fitzgerald, and anyone else I offered them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Boy I Once Knew"
Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Stone.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Boy I Once Knew,
Also by Elizabeth Stone,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Author's former student from her days teaching high school in Brooklyn kept in touch for several years only by Christmas card exchanges, until the fellow's diaries arrived at her doorstep unexpectedly as part of his estate. Rather than a strict "re-creation" of Vincent's life, Stone went with contrasting diary entries against what she knew of him personally, as well as discussing how she dealt with issues similar to his in her own life. Highly recommended.
Upon completing this book (and before reading the reviews of others on this site), I came out with many of the same feelings that they had: this book was NOT so much about the 'Boy' but about the author. I'm glad to see that I wasn't the only one disappointed and misled by the book and its summary. I wanted to know more about the supposed title character...not about the author. The author left his diaries and notes to a total stranger so she could tell the world about him...about his battle with life...and death. And yet all she was concerned about was her own life. What a disappointment. I'm sure she gained something from reading his diaries, but we certainly didn't. And when she did mention him, she used quotes from his diaries that were quick notes like, 'Went shopping. Met with friend.' Nothing in detail. A true author who wanted to share Vincent with the world would have cut beyond his quick notes and written something with more depth, using his notes as a guide. Ms. Stone didn't seem to even 'get' Vincent...or the gay lifestyle. So, after reading the book, I quickly resold it online. It wasn't a keeper for me. Sorry, Vincent...I hope someone else preserves memories of you...
While this book was good, it wasnt NEARLY what I thought it would be...I thought it was going to be HIS diary. Hmm. Maybe I got that wrong...but also it just...wasnt as good as i thought it'd be. sorry. more later...
I truely enjoyed reading this book, and couldn't put it down! It wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be about, but it was definitely that everyone should read b/c it helps to better understand the grieving proce
A Boy I Once Knew packs quite a wallop. Stone's fascinating and beautifully written story of the death of her former student drew me ever more deeply into his life -- and allowed me to join her on her own courageous journey of self-discovery. Confronting issues of loss, memory and meaning, this teacher's gripping narrative took me hostage, then set me free, wiser for my time under its spell. At story's end, I felt affirmed in my often shaky belief that imagination and love can transform dying into a bold act of living. If you're a teacher, a student, or, like me, just someone coping with loss, you'll love this inspiring gem of a book by a wonderful writer.