It didn’t make sense.
Less than a year after my parents had built a brand-new house in Narragansett, they sold it and moved our family back to Providence.
I returned to my old elementary school in Elmhurst, and things were different. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the name of the school had been changed to honor him, and a two-story addition now housed four new classrooms and a sparkling gymnasium.
Things were different at home, too. Seven months after we moved back to Providence, my dad moved out. It unleashed a riot of emotions in me, but I betrayed none of them. The next day, I sat in Miss Murphy’s third-grade class with an acute awareness: despite the tumult I felt in my stomach, I looked exactly the same as I did the week before. No one knew my parents were splitting up, and I was determined to keep it that way.
The sparkling new Kennedy gym served as an after-school rec center, which was run by a no-nonsense basketball coach named Armand. One day, he asked me my name.
“Oh, you’re Donald’s son,” he said.
As a fourth-grader the following fall, I made the Kennedy team. Armand told us we would practice three days a week, from 3:30 to 5:30.
“Three-thirty means you should be here at 3:15,” he added.
The gym may have been new, but Armand was decidedly old school. He smoked Lucky Strikes and inked precise plays on sheets of white paper clenched by a clipboard. When I threw a “lollipop pass” at our team’s first practice, his reproach was thunderous.
Incongruously, we all called our fearsome coach by his first name, which could be comical. Given my Rhode Island accent, I thought “Armand” was spelled “Almond” – like an Almond Joy candy bar.
I soon discovered I felt no joy at his rigorous two-hour practices. So I skipped one. And then another. And the next time I set foot in the Kennedy gym, Armand’s voice found me instantly.
He strode past me in his low-cut white Chuck Taylors, pointing to the door I had just walked through. I followed him into the hallway.
“Where have you been?” Armand said. The disappointment in his voice stung.
I couldn’t tell him that on one day I had opted to play touch football on Rankin Avenue with my friends Chris and Billy and George. Or that on the other I had gone to my cousin Tommy’s house. I especially couldn’t tell him I didn’t actually want to play organized basketball, at least not yet. In Armand’s commanding presence, I couldn’t say a thing.
“What’s wrong, son?” he said. I felt shame rising up in me, similar to when I lied to a friend about why my dad’s maroon Chevelle was seldom in our driveway anymore.
As I turned away to hide my tears, Armand’s voice broke the hallway silence. It was soft and confidential.
“I know things have been tough for you at home,” he said. It wasn’t why I had skipped practice, but Armand’s words touched a part of me that I wanted to hide from the world.
“It’s OK,” he said as I wiped my eyes. “Come try out for the team again next year.”
I did, and played on Armand’s Kennedy squads until I reached high school – likely more than 100 games and 250 practices.
What I remember most about it all isn’t a thrilling win or a heartbreaking loss. What has stayed with me for more than 50 years is Armand’s kindness that day in the hallway, before I ever donned a blue-and-gold Kennedy uniform.
Thanks to him, the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen.