Concerning my son, Benjamin Lebert's, partial paralysis, it says on it. How many times have I pushed this envelope into a teacher's hand? A dozen at least. Now I get to do it again. Jörg Richter reaches hastily for the envelope. His eyes glint with curiosity. He opens the letter. To my horror he reads it out loud. His voice is clear and full of understanding:Dear Mr. Richter,
My son Benjamin has had a partial paralysis of the left side of the body since birth. This means that the functioning of the left side of his body, particularly the arm and the leg, is limited. In practical terms, this means that he either cannot perform or has difficulty performing such fine motor tasks as tying his shoes, using a knife and fork, drawing geometrical figures, using a pair of scissors. In addition, he has problems with sports, cannot ride a bicycle, and has difficulty with any movement that involves a sense of balance. I hope you will give him your support by taking note of these things. Many thanks. Warm regards,
Jutta LebertAs the last word is read out, I shut my eyes. I want to be somewhere else, where explanations are superfluous. I slowly go back to my parents. They are standing by the wall, holding hands. You can see they're glad to have explained things. Jörg Richter looks up. He nods. "We will pay attention to Benjamin's handicap," he says. No questions.
We go up to my room. It's on the second floor, not far away. You go down a long wooden corridor that opens onto a long wooden staircase. The walls are snow white. We follow the headmaster upstairs. I hold my father's hand. Soon we reach another corridor.
"From now on you're at home here," says Jörg Richter. The walls are no longer white but yellow. It's meant to be an appealing yellow, but it misses. The floor is covered in gray linoleum. It doesn't go with the yellow walls. The corridor is empty. The other kids aren't back yet from winter vacation. Beside one of the windows is a plaque: THE TEACHER IN CHARGE OF THIS CORRIDOR IS LUKAS LANDORF, it says. ALL REQUESTS FOR MONEY FOR SHOPPING IN THE VILLAGE, ALL ISSUING OF POCKET MONEY, ALL REGULATION OF BEDTIMES AND AUTHORIZATIONS OF ANY KIND ARE HANDLED BY HIM. LUKAS LANDORF IS IN ROOM 219.
Mr. Richter points at the plaque. He twinkles. "Lukas Landorf will be your teacher, too. You'll like him. He's new here himself. Unfortunately, he won't be back from vacation for another couple of hours, but I know you'll have plenty of time to get to know him."
I look around for my father. He's standing behind me. He cuts a large figure. All strength. I don't want to see him go.
My mother is already inside. I follow her. It's a small room; it looked quite different in the brochure. The pale parquet floor is cracked and you can see holes in it. There's a bed squashed against each long wall. Both beds are old farmhouse style. In the middle there's a big flat desk with two chairs. One of them has a cushion with the eagle on it. Two cupboards for clothes against the wall. One of them's locked -- the other must be for me. In addition, two nightstands and two storage cupboards, which seem to be meant to function as bookcases. Walls white. The only posters are above the bed on the left. Most of them fall into the category of sports or computer games. My roommate, who presumably put them up, isn't here yet. My father and Mr. Richter follow us into the room. Three suitcases and a bag are put down on the floor. I think about the secretary, Mrs. Lerch. Thirty years in this dump. Richter pulls open a drawer in the desk and fishes out a little plaque, four thumbtacks, and a hammer. He leaves the room and fixes the plaque to the door. Later I read: ROOM 211, JANOSCH ALEXANDER SCHWARZE (10TH GRADE) AND BENJAMIN LEBERT (9TH GRADE).
So now it's official. I'm stuck here. Possibly till I graduate. My parents are leaving. We say goodbye. I watch them go back down the corridor. Hear the doors creak. The footsteps on the wooden floors. The staircase. Mr. Richter goes with them. He has promised to be back soon. He has to talk over finances with my parents. Not my place. Hope I see them again soon. I take a bag and begin to unpack. Underwear, sweatshirts, sweaters, jeans. Where the hell is my checked shirt?
Janosch says the food is lousy. As in lousy.
As in seven days in the week. He's standing in the bathroom, washing his feet. I'm waiting. All the washbasins are in use. It's a big bathroom. Six washbasins, four showers. All tiled. All in use. Another five kids are waiting with me. The rest are asleep.
The floor is awash. No shower curtains. My feet are getting wet. With luck it'll be my turn soon. But things drag on. Janosch squeezes a pimple. Then washes his hands. When I get to the front of the line, I can't see a thing. The mirror's all fogged up -- from the showers. Nice. Janosch waits for me. I decide I'd better be quick. I hastily brush my teeth and wash my face, then dry my hands. We leave the bathroom. It's only ten yards from our room. We go down the hall. Apparently it's known as Tarts' Alley, or Landorf Lane, after the teacher in charge. Sixteen kids live along here, all ages thirteen to nineteen. They're divided three to a room or two to a room, and there's one single room. This is for a particularly rough character called Troy -- I can't remember his last name. Janosch talks about him a lot. Apparently he's weird, and he's been here a long time. A long time.
Our teacher in charge, Lukas Landorf, comes down Tarts' Alley. Not exactly a standout. A mop of black hair hanging down into his eyes. Old-fashioned glasses. He's a little taller than I am but not much. Janosch says Landorf never changes his green sweater. Apparently he's cheap -- cheap as a Scot, according to Janosch -- but otherwise a nice guy. Not too strict. Notices nothing. Even lets girls into the rooms. Human Valium. Some of the other teachers in charge are a lot more wide awake.
Lukas Landorf comes over to us. Smiles. He's got a young face. Can't be much more than thirty.
"So? Has Janosch shown you everything?"
"Yes," I say, "everything."
"Except the library," says Janosch. "We missed that. Can I show it to him now?"
"No you can't. Heavy day tomorrow. You guys have to get to bed." As he says that, he moves on. Looks a little wobbly on his feet. Must be missing his vacation already. Me too. Just a couple of days in South Tirol this time -- that was it. Including a minor run-in with my older sister, Paula. But it was paradise, as I can see now.
We go into our room. Janosch wants to talk. It's this girl he's fallen in love with. Bonding seems to be a pretty quick process around this place. I've been here seven hours, and we're into girls already. Not my thing.
It's not just because I'm disabled. I've had about as much luck with girls thus far as I've had in school, i.e., zip. The only thing I've been good at is eyeing them while the other guys nailed the ones I'd fallen for. I really had that down. Janosch talks and talks. I really feel sorry for the guy. He talks about flowers, blinding lights, and big tits. I can picture the whole thing and I'm with him all the way. A girl like that is something else. I sit down on the bed. My left leg aches, the way it does in the evening. It's been doing it for sixteen years. My bad leg. I can't count the times I've just wanted to amputate it and throw it away, along with my left arm. Why do I need either of them anyway? All they tell me is what I can't do -- can't run, can't jump, can't be happy. But I've never actually done it -- amputation, I mean. Maybe I need them to figure out math.
Or to fuck. If I want to fuck, I probably need my fucking left leg. Janosch by now is on to another subject -- his childhood. He's saying that life used to be so great and it isn't anymore. And he says how cool it would be just to get out of this place and take off. Because it's about being free.
Janosch says the most important thing is being free. I know better than to say anything. First of all, I've only just got here. I'd like to take off too. No question -- take off and run, and keep running. We smoke cigarettes. Against the rules, apparently, but so what.
Janosch lit mine with a match. I can't do it on my own -- takes two hands. If Lukas Landorf turns up, we'll throw them out the window. We're both sitting where we can do this. The window is wide open. Janosch looks at me. He's obviously tired. His eyes are deep blue and they look wet. The top of his bleach-blond head keeps nodding down toward the bedclothes. He gets up, stubs out the cigarette on the windowsill, and throws it out into the darkness of the parking lot. Just a few hours ago I was standing down there. Now I'm standing up above. In the center of things. Perhaps it's for the best. I throw my cigarette out too. Then we go to sleep. Or, rather, we try. Janosch talks about Malen, his girl. "She's unbelievably special." I'm impressed. Most kids I know say something else about their girls. Janosch just says she's special. That's it. It's great. I wish him luck with Malen. The night sky is clear and there's no moon. I sit at the window, the way I usually do.
I push myself up in bed, tired. It was an exhausting night. Not much sleep. A lot of sitting and waiting. Outside the sky is lightening. Maybe a sign. Then again, maybe not. Who knows.
The alarm clock goes off. A horrible noise that says first day of school. It also says math. It's also probably saying you scored 6 again. But I don't hear that yet. I turn it off. My black jeans and white pink floyd -- the wall T-shirt are ready. I put them on my side of the desk last night. My mother packed them both for me, right on top, next to my schoolbooks. What a surprise! I get dressed. I know where to go. Janosch showed me. He's still asleep. Maybe I should wake him. There are stiff punishments for sleeping in, apparently, but I know he knows this himself. I find a piece of paper in my pants pocket. I recognize my father's swooping handwriting:Dear Benni,
I know this is a tough time for you. And I also know that you'll have to rely on yourself for lots of things. But please know that it's all for the best, and be brave.
Be brave. It's all for the best. Nicely said. Really nice. Can't complain. I'll keep the note. Maybe show it to my children, so they can see what a big guy their father was, a really big guy. I stuff the piece of paper back in my pocket, then set off for breakfast. The dining hall is at the other end of the Castle.
I head along Tarts' Alley, down the never-ending stairs to the main corridor, and eventually reach the headmaster's office. Then it's on through the official reception corridor, past Mrs. Lerch's room, down the stairs to the west wing, which lead directly to the dining hall. The west-wing stairs are old; with every step you take the wood groans and creaks as if it's begging for immediate relief. The dining hall is vast, with at least seventeen tables that seat a minimum of eight each. The walls have this beautiful paneling, and there are real paintings on them, showing wars, peace, love, and -- no surprise here -- eagles clutching schoolbags. I sit down at a table that's sort of squashed into a corner, and the only other kid sharing it with me is a sixth grader. The roll tastes dry. Every attempt to spread butter on it founders on my inability to hold it steady in my left hand. I keep trying but no luck. The roll shoots right across the table. A couple of girls sitting at a nearby table who've been following the action snigger. I'm ashamed. I retrieve the roll as quick as I can and ask the sixth grader to butter it for me. "So how old are you?" he asks. "Sixteen," I say. "By the time you're sixteen, you should have learned how to butter a roll," he says, and hands it back to me unbuttered. The girls snicker. I drink my tea.
"By the time you're sixteen, you should have learned to grasp a set square," asserts Rolf Falkenstein, the math teacher. He hands it back to me without having given me any help in drawing the proof of the theorem. Tough luck. So here I am on my first day of school. I shake my head. But everything started really well. The first classes, French and English, went fine, and I got through my famous fucking introductory aria. Usual thing. Come in and face the class, no idea where to stick your hands, and say:
Hi folks, my name is Benjamin Lebert, I'm sixteen, and I'm a cripple, just so you know. I thought it would interest you the way it does me.
Class 9B, which is the one I'm in, reacted the usual way: a couple of sideways glances, a little tittering, the first quick looks to size me up. For the boys I was now another of the nerds to be ignored, and for the girls I was just plain dead. Quite an achievement.
The French teacher, Heide Bachmann, says that here at Castle Neuseelen it doesn't matter whether anyone has a disability or not. What matters here at Neuseelen is loving, and hence binding values and social skills. Good to know. Class 9B isn't large: twelve kids, me included. Not like the state schools, where the minimum is around thirty-five. But they're not supposed to count. Here, we count. We count so much you can hear the place buckling under our psychic weight. We sit, like one big family, in a horseshoe facing the teacher. We love one another so much, we're practically holding hands. Boarding school as isolation chamber. One group, one circle of friends, one family. And Rolf Falkenstein, our math teacher, is our daddy. He's big. About six foot two. Pale face with prominent cheekbones. One of those guys who wear their age on their foreheads. Fifty -- not six months' difference one way or the other. Falkenstein's hair is greasy, color nondescript, presumably gray, as far as I can figure out. His fingernails are long and a mess. He scares me a bit. He smacks his big set square against the blackboard and draws a line, straight through a geometrical structure. I think it's some sort of a baseline. I try to copy it. Can't do it. The set square keeps slipping off to the side. Finally I do it freehand. The result is a sort of mathematical cartoon, more like a kite than a straight line. After class Falkenstein calls me aside. "You need some remedial coaching," he says. "About an hour a day, I'd say." I can feel the joy. "Okay. If that's what it takes." I leave.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Crazy by Benjamin Lebert. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.