Remembering Norman Sutherland

I suppose I never really knew Norman.

Norman was a tall, lanky freckled kid. He was soft-spoken. And he had problems.

I learned about his problems when I graded his pop quiz in Mr. Bell’s history class. When I set eyes on his quiz, I couldn’t believe it. He had problems with spelling and grammar—severe problems.

I could not understand how Norman made it to middle school writing the way he did.

I knew nothing about learning disabilities. I knew I had trouble with spelling and writing, but I believed with effort I could fix those problems. And I thought the same about Norman’s problem too.

I knew Norman from sports. During every break – morning, noon, and afternoon – we would choose sides and play football or softball. And while Norman was a good kid, he usually waited until the end to be chosen.

One day during Phys Ed, our coach decided he would pit the 8th graders against the 6th and 7th graders in a game of softball. And to ensure fairness, he would both pitch and hit for the 6th and 7th graders.

The stakes were one hundred pushups for the losers.

Norman and I played outfield for the team of 8th graders. We put Norman in right field and whenever a leftie came to bat, I would shade into right field.  I am ashamed to admit, none of us trusted Norman to make a play. And our strategy worked until the top of the 9th inning.

With the tying run on second and the winning run on first, coach came to bat. He was right-handed but pushed the ball high into right field. I remember seeing the ball rocket high off the bat.

There was no way I could run to shallow right field and the make the catch. And only a throw bypassing the cutoff man to home would save us, but Norman fouled my plans. As he stood still watching the ball, I yelled, “NOR—MAN! THE BALL!”

Norman hunched over and shuffled ungracefully forward, watching the ball all the time. He took what seemed baby steps and stuck out his glove. To my shock and delight he made the catch and won the game.

I was the first one there and gave him a bear hug. Every member of the team ran to right field and congratulated him.

Norman had no idea how to handle the congratulations. And I felt ashamed I doubted him, but not before taunting the losers as they struggled with their one hundred pushups.

When we entered high school, we went our separate ways and while I saw Norman around, I had no idea how things went for him.

Then after high school, a friend told me that Norman had been shot and killed in a drug deal that had gone badly. And when I heard the news, sadly I thought not of his magnificent catch that day on the baseball diamond, but of that pop quiz in history class. And I thought how his teachers, his family, and his friends had failed him.

He died very young—he was only around twenty-one years old.

Today I thought of Norman Sutherland and I am happy to say that instead of remembering how he failed a pop quiz, I remembered his heroics on the baseball diamond.

©2015 Kent Gutschke. All rights reserved.

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