Bob Solomon’s Tribute to Sherman Hemsley
“The 206 Finds Family, Poverty, Victory, and Defeat in Biology Class”
A black kid named Hemsley was our freshman year’s class clown, substituting street wise cracks for serious class work. We enjoyed his prancing lithe, maybe skinny, figure, his super-fast repartee, and his vaudevillian’s plastic face. CHS needed lightening-up at times, and Hems was never nasty or heavy. He was Marx Brothers comedy wrapped in worn, tussled clothing.
He also radiated poverty that no amount of joking hid.
In Grade 9, Mr. Lukash’s Biology class was looking at prepared slides one day, and we had been warned to be careful lowering optics tube while focusing. ”If you crack a slide, you’ll have to pay for it, and they are very expensive, boys.”
In near-silence, with L. out of the room, we were working when when...krack! We knew before he shouted “Oh, shee-it!” whose tube had gone too fast and too damned far -- it had to be Hems’. It was.
Shock and fear ran through the classroom, and his dark face was pale. No comic’s, a kid’s face, almost crying. “Very expensive”—what did that mean -- $5? 10? 12.50? 15? Fifteen!
No one knew, but fear that Hems could never raise the sum was palpable. And he said aloud, but to no one in particular, ”I don’t have any money”, as he turned his pockets inside-out. He didn’t even have a key, a wallet, a dime. He looked skinnier and shorter than ever. Messy. Poor.
I spoke out (my usual class-comic ploy, I confess) “He’s in real trouble. Maybe we can help. I think we should “chip in”. Easy for me, I had 37 cents. And no one demurred. Phew, I gave someone my quarter. We passed the cash around, from hand to open hand. Pretty soon we had $6.72 in it.
We had failed. Not even $10. Shee-it. Hemsley, really scared, sank into his seat as the door opened.
L. had returned. Hem stood up and ‘fessed up to careless destruction of school property. He was warned. He had done it.
L., a fine teacher and good-hearted man said, “All right, then’– we gulped –’that’ll be 75 cents”.
Hems. smiled like an opened flower twinkling with dew. I think there were tiny tears in his eyes.
He was bursting with hilarity -- the joke was now on ... US! Oh, he offered to return the remaining coins to us. But no one remembered who had given what! We had just lost an average of 18 cents change!
Hems the slide-destroyer kept almost $6, and there was, I think, no chocolate pudding for my dessert that day, but what a day it had been. My class, new CHS boys, had seen a funny kid turn frightened youngster, and had pitched in and WON. Before we lost. Hilarity.
Someone shouted “Oh, keep the change, Hemsley. You’ll probably need it in the next class!” Hemsley returned to clowning. The class roared at its fate. Quiet returned. Lukash went on with the lesson, looking very stern. The bell rang.
Truth was we had just recognized how poor Hems was. He had never tried to hide it. The class had just finally added it all up -- he could use that money. I never forgot the feeling of solidarity with the first student I had ever recognized was poor and had “no way up”.
The next year this hilarious kid disappeared, never to return. I dislike change. Entropy keeps me awake. So I missed him.
For 60 years I thought about Hems, hoping he had not become depressed, not quit making people laugh, had found pockets that opened for him. He needed to or the smiles might end in a hovel, in poverty, alone. I wished he had stayed.
Two decades after the slide-breaking, I saw his name, Sherman Hemsley on “All in The Family”, and thought I recognized the actor’s twinkling eyes, snarly lips, and lithe, gamboling body: Could Jefferson (!) be my, no, our lost Hemsley. Sherman? I thought his name was Charles. Charles was Sherman and Jefferson. I was an idiot: “Hemsley” was all I recalled. Half a name. Was he my lost pal? Shee-it!
I never again felt such group-identity in any school as I did in CHS.
When Hems starred on TV again, in “Comin’ All Up”, the show was pretty good, though not as well-written or acted as “All in The Family” had been. Or “Maude”. But I laughed out loud when I watched it for the first time: It was TV’s “Golden Age”, I learned later, my poor little funny pal had, against all odds, “come on up”.
He was our Hemsley, the paper assured us.
I miss him again.