When teacher Elizabeth Stone received a package several years ago, she wasn't sure what to do with its contents. Having kept only nominal relations with the sender, Vincent, an introverted middle-school English student of hers during the '70s, it came as a surprise to Stone that she would be chosen to receive his gift: a lifelong collection of his diaries detailing his dreams, and their eventual souring in the face of AIDS. Her mission, then, was to make his dreams matter.
Obviously, that wouldn't be easy.
"There was an early point where I didn't want to approach the diaries for the same reason that I don't like approaching open coffins, but that was the new death," Stone says. "It never occurred to me that I wouldn't read them. It did occur to me that I might not have anything to write."
What she did eventually write is A Boy I Once New: What a Teacher Learned from Her Student, a unique memoir that is as much about dealing with estrangement and death as it is about Vincent's troubled life.
That life arched during the early outbreak of AIDS, as Vincent found himself confused and upset by his friends' illnesses and eventually by his own diagnosis. Stone struggles with the diary and its naïve avoidance of the deadly subject expressed through Vincent's irresponsible sexual behaviors and the tell-tale lesions he later attempts to conceal. Stone's text becomes the process by which the reader is exposed to Vincent's physical and emotional decline, in much the same way the author had it originally revealed to her. Still, in her writing, Stone manifests a meaningful personal relationship — one that had actually consisted of only yearly Christmas cards — with the now-deceased Vincent.
It makes for a difficult read, at first. Many of Vincent's diary entries are sentence fragments that shield despair: scars on his arms that he's afraid to show at the gym, HIV tests purposefully missed. But it is Stone's presence in the memoir itself that brings it all to life, connecting the fragments with an almost maternal curiosity.
"In the early drafts of this, I was not as much of a presence as I later became," she says. "People who read it kept saying to me, 'What made you do this? Didn't you feel mad? Wasn't it a burden?' And I really had not thought about what was making me do it. I really had to sit down and discover that. Then when I did, that became part of the story."
Clearly, the book serves an alternate purpose. Stone was afraid of death, even unemotional about it, and at the time was dealing with the looming death of her mother. She sought to figure out how to make death somehow current. She admits that a memoir structured as a conversation with the dead could come off a little bit flaky, if not merely indulgent, but that's precisely where Stone's ambition works. There's nothing wistful to make it all intentionally poignant; just a well-processed document of rational grieving.
"I think that the interplay between him and me — even though he's dead and I'm alive — is really part of the point. It clearly wasn't going to be about does he die or doesn't he. He dies. But ... I wanted a resurrection for him."
Following the book's completion, Stone went one step further in immortalizing Vincent by donating the diaries to the San Francisco Public Library's gay and lesbian archives. In turn, a memorial service was enacted this past Memorial Day for Vincent, who never really had a funeral.
At the gathering, "Someone who stood up said, 'Just imagine, Amy Tan was his favorite writer, and now she's heard of him,'" Stone says.
Amy Tan is actually quoted on the book's sleeve, saying that she thinks about Vincent every day. "I think that was his hope of what would happen with his diaries — that Amy Tan would hear of his life, and he wouldn't just be a tiny, insignificant panel on a huge quilt."
A Boy I Once Knew: What a Teacher Learned From Her Student
By Elizabeth Stone
$19.95, 202 pages
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