In May of my senior year of college, on a Thursday to be precise, I was supposed to be studying for final exams with my friend Alison. I had no interest in higher education because this was the night of the “Friends” season finale – the one where Ross was going to marry Emily. I found it rude Calvin College scheduled finals around this life-changing event, but my friend Alison, who was pre-med, insisted that I come along with her to the library to study. “It’s English,” I complained, tossing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my backpack. “I can totally make it up.”
Alison promised me gummy bears and coffee, and also, if we got three hours of studying in, we could watch “Friends” on our study break. So I went with her, and maybe it would’ve gone well, but we were sitting next to the copy machine and everyone plus their Dutch relative needed to make 5,000 copies of the Heidelberg Catechism. The noise was making me crazy.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered violently to Alison, who had her nice, neat notes, index cards, and textbooks all spread out on the table. She looked at me for a minute, but said nothing. I took advantage of her not knowing what to do or say about my lack of motivation and asked with a sigh, “Also? Do you think Ross will really marry Emily?”
Alison ripped a piece of paper from her notebook. I thought she was going to ball it up and throw it at me, but instead, she wrote, “OUT OF ORDER,” with a green highlighter, pushed her chair back, and slammed the sign on the copy machine. Without a word, she sat back down.
“Alison Hartemink,” I said in mock horror, “that’s lying. You’re lying!” Then, I rubbed my hands together and said, “I can’t wait to see what happens!”
Sure enough, student after student walked up with their textbooks and a grocery bag worth of quarters, but when they saw the sign, their heads sunk, they pivoted pitifully, and walked away, quarters jingling.
I was laughing so hard, I thought I’d need CPR, but Alison, who has a poker face so solid she shouldn’t be allowed in Vegas, didn’t so much as twitch. She kept right on studying how the body worked while I tried my best to read about Frankenstein abandoning his nameless creature because he was too afraid of what he’d made. After a while though, I’d fallen into the story, so haunted I’d forgotten about Ross and Rachel, and no longer heard the jingling quarters or attempts at running a copy machine.
Alison had a way of bringing out the best in me; of saving me from myself, though she never did it in a way that made me think she was doing something heroic, or that I needed to be saved in the first place.
Several years later, I am reading a story to my daughters, Hadley and Harper. This one is called Auggie and Me a sequel to Wonder. The book is divided into three parts, each told from the point of view of a character whose life intersected with August Pullman, a boy so deformed perhaps Mary Shelley would say, “Nah. Couldn’t happen. Sewing together body parts and using lightning to make a human? Sure. But not this. Not August Pullman.”
Auggie and Me opens with Julian, the bulliest bully there ever was. He was so awful to Auggie that at times, the three of us had to put the book down and either wipe away tears or punch a pillow. Nobody is interested in what he has to say. I do my best though, to read expressively and with a manner of exploration, hoping my voice won’t betray me. I really don’t want to give Julian a fair chance.
We learn that Julian is afraid of, like, everything, and we learned that his mother exacerbates his fear and enables him. Twenty or thirty pages in, Hadley, Harper, and I are still disgusted and in shock with Julian’s behavior towards Auggie, but we have a better understanding of why he acted the way he did. We are still horrified, but it is a horror mixed with curiosity. It is enough to keep reading.
It is the point when Julian learns where he got his name from, when the three of us swallow a dose of empathy. He visits his grandmother in Paris, and she tells him about a boy named Julian who is crippled, and who her class calls “tourteau” because he moves like a crab. One day, the Nazis came into their classroom to take away all the Jewish people. Julian, the boy she made fun of, saves her life and eventually gives her her first kiss. We are swept away by this story, as is Julian, the one who terrorized Auggie. Reading it, I could almost feel the shift in him. I feel a change happen to us, too. Though no one says a word, I believe we are all beginning to hope in Julian.
The other Julian, the one they called “tourteau”, dies. The Nazis kill him. Hadley and Harper are devastated. “How could this happen?” they ask. They’re trying to understand this kind of evil, but I can’t give them an explanation, just as I cannot give them an explanation for love, evil’s foil; both accomplish mighty feats, both are irrational. I don’t know how to explain either, so I give the girls a story.
I tell them about Albert Hartemink, my college-friend Alison’s grandfather. He and his brother were part of the Dutch Resistance. During the war, the Hartemink brothers hid Jewish people and kept them protected so they wouldn’t go to concentration camps.
“They were the good guys?” Hadley asks, smiling.
“They were the good guys,” I say. “There’s even a street named after them in the Netherlands.”
Harper, who’s been listening and fiddling with her fingers asks, “Did the Hartemink boys get caught?”
“Yes,” I tell them. “They were caught, and they were killed.”
Both Hadley and Harper gasp and hang their heads.
“So Alison doesn’t know her grandpa?” Harper asks, and her question makes all of us cry.
“Well, no,” I begin, my voice shaky, “but she knows what he did, and she passed that story on to me, and I’m telling it to you now, so you can know about him, too.”
“He did a good thing,” Hadley says, her eyes wide to prevent tears from falling.
“He did a good thing,” I agree. “And while I don’t know Mr. Hartemink, I know his grandkids, and I know his son, and knowing them, I get a sense of who he was, too.”
I tell them the Hartemink grandkids were kind and hilarious, studious and mischievous in the most intelligent of ways. “To be in on a Hartemink prank is like being in on the inside of a top secret spy mission.”
Hadley and Harper want to know what I mean, and I say I’ll tell them when they’re older.
The three of us sit silently for a while. Auggie and Me is open on my lap, Julian’s story has almost come to an end.
“I don’t hate Julian anymore,” Hadley says, an arm around me.
“Me either,” Harper agrees. “He’s not so scared anymore.”
“Do you mean he’s not so scary anymore?” I ask.
“No, mama. I mean the whole reason he was mean to Auggie was because he was afraid. He knows more about himself now. He doesn’t seem so scared.”
Alison and I went home to watch the “Friends” finale, as she promised, on a study break. I rolled off the couch in shock and relief that Ross said Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s, and Alison said, “Didn’t see that coming,” so dryly that I couldn’t tell if she actually had known that’s what would happen.
Then, we made a pot of coffee and we sat at the kitchen table to study some more. I pulled out Frankenstein, she pulled out her medical textbooks and notes, and we got to work.
I looked at the calendar on our wall. Alison had made a countdown for everyone in the house in the spare time I knew she didn’t have. We all loved it, though. She was always doing things like that to motivate us to keep working.
“What are we going to be doing next year at this time?” I asked her, shaking my flip-flop until it dropped on the floor.
“You’ll be a Mrs.,” Alison said, “living in South Bend, Indiana, and I’ll be doing my best to make it through my first year of medical school in Florida.”
“Yeah,” I said, and turned pages looking for any notes I’d written in Frankenstein.
I wanted to ask her if she thought I’d make friends, if she thought I could be a teacher as I had been studying to be, if she thought I’d ever write. I wanted to tell her I was scared.
I wish I knew whether Albert and his granddaughter had the same deadpan sense of humor, or whether he had ridiculously neat handwriting as Alison does. I wonder if she got her basketball skills, or her love of medicine from him.
My guess is you’d have to have a sense of humor – you’d have to see the world as a Divine comedy – in order to do the work he did, and I believe that perspective was passed on to Alison.
I think about Albert Hartemink, and Julian, “tortueau.” I think of the other Julian and Auggie. I think of Alison and I and that silly copy machine; her biology notes and my Frankenstein notes. I think of Hadley and Harper and all the stories all of us read and hold on to so we can know more about ourselves. So we don’t have to be so scared.
Photo by Robert Pittman, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Callie Feyen is a modified reprint of an article originally published at Off the Page and is used with permission.
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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