Portrait of an invisible boy

John Walsh as a third-grader at Robert F. Kennedy School. As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2021.

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.

“Walsh!”

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.

24 Comments

Very touching story, John. All of these moments are the building blocks that have created the persons we are. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

Ah, John, you’ve done it again. Gpa

Maureen Dillon Sleight November 21, 2021 at 8:13 am

Great story! I particularly like tha ‘Providence accent’ reference. It hits close to home! 😉

Great story John. You missed the part that was so clear to me during the time: He thought of you amongst the best he had known in some 50 years coaching and being a community leader. Armand and my Dad were always close. Both coaches, served in public office and nice Families.

Inasmuch as you may have thought you were invisible. .. you never were, that’s the cool part. Happy Thanksgiving

I feel for you. As a sophmore, I lasted one week trying out for the Classical High School football team. Didn’t want to be there, pushed into it by an adult cousin. First day of practice I showed up wearing Bermuda shorts, wing tips, and green ankle socks. A helmet large enough for me couldn’t be found. At the next practice I learned that no such head gear could existed in RI public schools’ inventories. I cut practice, went home, faced my cousin’s wrathful disappointment. To this day I don’t wear hats.

A great story and sounds like a great coach! I had no such exposure, and it was 40 years till I could even contemplate picking up something as low stress as a golf club. Happily, with a bit of luck, life can provide affirming alternatives.

Marjorie Nagle Chouinard November 21, 2021 at 7:09 pm

It’s amazing what a talented writer you are. The story of that part of your life being shared will probably touch someone else that might be going through exactly what you had at that age. Paying it forward as your old coach had with you. Thanks for sharing .

John, great story. Is this Armand Batastini?

John, yet another well-penned journey you’ve taken us on. Your closing line…”the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen…” struck a chord. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Deb and the family.

Such a beautiful, touching experience, a very heartwarming story, thanks for sharing.

John, Thanks again for your reflections. I teach a course at BU for aspiring social workers and I talk about how people can be therapeutic without being therapists. Your coach had a therapeutic moment with you that seemed to have a lasting influence.
Joe P

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