There are those who walk the planet with spirits so gentle and minds so fine that the atmosphere of the Earth is too dense for them. So rather than flourish, they trudge along, barely able to lift their head against a world they perceive as hostile. It is almost as though they have come from the future to teach other, less evolved souls than themselves, but in the process of doing so they often get trampled by the ignorance of those very beings they are trying to help.
It is often a question of time and place. In one place, a person of genius and exquisite gifts might be esteemed and honored; in another, more culturally deprived area, this same person might be ridiculed.
And so it was with Ronnie Thatcher, whose misfortune it was to be born in a rural county just outside of Knoxville, where religion (as opposed to true spirituality) is the main occupation, and judgments are fierce and often cruel toward anyone who is different.
Ronnie Thatcher was unquestionably different. He was said to be a genius in mathematics and had won a full scholarship to an Ivy League college. It was also rumored that his mother was practically illiterate and that Ronnie’s father had abandoned the family when Ronnie was a baby. As it happened, Ronnie didn’t get to stay in college long enough to graduate, for his mother constantly telephoned him, telling him that she had this or that ailment and could simply not do without him. And so Ronnie Thatcher, who was enjoying great respect from teachers and students alike in Boston, returned to the tiny, run-down home he was born in to take care of his allegedly ailing mother. It was an environment that must have felt to him like a battlefield in a war he had not chosen to fight in and one that he could have no hope of winning.
It was not as if the townspeople were against him. It was more that they were not evolved enough to have any comprehension of what he was about. Ronnie was simply tolerated as more of an oddity than a human being, like some sort of freak of nature. This must have been an unbearably lonely place for Ronnie Thatcher to dwell in.
In the first place, Ronnie was quite homely, with cheeks puffed out as though he were a squirrel storing nuts for the winter; he had a red face, his weak and watery eyes emphasized by Coke-bottle glasses. He was rotund with short legs and a large belly. And he was agonizingly shy, avoiding eye contact with anyone. But he eventually found a place for himself in the elementary school, teaching children with hearing and sight disabilities.
Before he even arrived at the school, he was doomed, his fate sealed. Preceding this gentle man was a rumor that Ronnie Thatcher wore magical eyeglasses that allowed him to see through clothing to the naked body beneath. As he entered the cafeteria on his first day, all the little girls (including myself) wrapped their arms around themselves.
“Here he comes,” said Rose Smith, “cover yourself.”
All down the line, children were twisting and turning and holding their arms around themselves to prevent Ronnie Thatcher’s thick, magical glasses from allowing his vision to penetrate our clothes.
Surely this was a humiliating state of affairs for Ronnie, for we made no effort to spare his feelings. As always, he was courteous and immaculate, wearing his brown pin-striped suit, white shirt, and red bow-tie. He always walked to the farthest table in the cafeteria and ate his lunch alone, a book propped in front of him.
At Christmas our church, First Baptist, sent us around to poor neighborhoods to sing Christmas carols, and that was how I happened to see how Ronnie lived at home. The house was small, with linoleum floors and a plastic tablecloth on a round table. The wallpaper was old and peeling and had roses on it. Ronnie’s mother, Delores, sat slumped in a rocking chair asleep and never woke up during the time we were there. The only relief from dreariness was the wonderful smell of cookies baking in the oven. After we had sung “Joy to the World,” Ronnie took the cookies out and passed them around.
“I knew you were coming so I baked these for you,” said Ronnie, beaming, as though Christmas had been created just for the people in that room. I glanced around his house. There was a morose-looking blue parakeet sitting in a cage. A vase of plastic flowers. Through the open door of a room off to the side, I could see many, many books. Large, heavy books: dictionaries, math books, books by Einstein, Freud, and Dickens. Thin, beautiful books of poetry by Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas. When Ronnie saw me looking eagerly at his books, our eyes met, for lovers of books are kindred spirits.
After that night, I began to take my lunch tray over to where Ronnie sat alone and he began teaching me. About books, about the world beyond the perimeter of our small town and its fundamentalist Christianity and its harsh judgments. He had been to Paris. He had studied the religions of the world. Though our friendship sustained me and nourished my small 10-year old soul, it wasn’t sufficient to succor Ronnie, for he needed acceptance and companionship from his peers—and he would have to leave his mother in order to find that.
A few days before Easter, Ronnie failed to show up for his classes. They went to look for him but his mother said he had simply vanished. “How could he do this to me,” she asked.
Rumors were flying. Maybe Ronnie had a secret, glamorous side we hadn’t suspected.
Some said he had eloped with an eighth grader; others said he had been seen getting into a spaceship down in Glenobey Hollow; still others said he had been kidnapped by Communists.
It was weeks before they dug his old Pontiac out of the lake.
Rather than grieve for my friend, I felt a strange elation, as though he were telling me that he was free. Free of his body, free of his tormentors, free to choose another life in another time and place where he was truly welcomed, among equals. He had shed his skin and escaped. On the day they discovered his body, I imagined him soaring in the sky, looking down on fabulous cities, or even other planets, where he could live and explore and learn and teach. A comforting place he could truly call his own.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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