In the mid-fifties, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, a refugee from Budapest showed up in my second grade class. He was assigned to the seat next to mine. His name, the teacher told me, was Charles. He was about my age and didn’t speak a word of English. The teacher gave him a pencil and some of that newsprint writing paper we used to get in school back then, and a sheet of colored stars he could stick on the paper. Then she ignored him for the rest of day. He drew diligently, making pages and pages of space drawings with planets, stars, and rockets. After he finished each one, he would tap me on the shoulder and show it to me.
“That’s good,” I would say, and smile. Then he would promptly start on another.
I told him my name was Jerry. I pointed to him and said “Charles?” meaning your name is Charles right? But he looked confused. I think they had just told him his new name the day before and he didn’t feel comfortable with it. Who knows what he was thinking?
I asked my parents about why Charles was here. My dad explained that Hungary was trying to escape being held captive by the Soviets, and the Red army had been sent in to stop them from becoming free. My mother said that was just American propaganda, that Hungarians had never tried to implement socialism, they just wanted to become capitalist, and they were being wooed by the Germans, French and the Brits to break away from the Soviets, who were genuinely trying to build socialism which was a system where everyone shared what they had.
My parents talked that way all the time. I learned later they were both liberal democrats when they met and then my dad went to the right and my mother to the left. Somehow they stayed together even though on certain subjects they disagreed with absolutely everything the other person believed in.
One day Charles came to a school with a bandaid on his forehead I pointed to it and asked what happened and he put his hand on his forehead as if he were ashamed. He didn’t talk to me the rest of the day. When he finished a drawing instead of showing it to me, he put it on the bottom of the stack and started on another one.
Weather permitting, we ate our lunches in the playground. Charles usually sat on a bench with a sandwich, looking plaintively at the other kids talking and running around. He never climbed on the monkey bars or the swings or anything. One day a kid brought in a soccer ball, a rare sight in US elementary schools in the 50’s. He started kicking it around with his friend. Immediately Charles put his lunch down and ran over to where the two kids were playing. Without saying hello or anything, he intercepted the ball and started dribbling. The two boys tried to get the ball away from him, but they didn’t have a chance. Charles dribbled around them as if their feet were glued to the asphalt. They chased him for a while, but Charles was off like a rabbit, dribbling the soccer ball around the whole playground like a madman. We all stared at him as he whizzed by. What was this kid doing, and wow look at him go. The two boys went to the playground monitor and complained that that the new Hunkie kid took away their soccer ball and wouldn’t give it back. The monitor, the shop teacher, approached Charles and asked for the ball. Charles understood his hand gestures and gave it to him. Then the monitor gave the ball to the two boys who promptly turned their backs to Charles and ran away.
When Charles realized what happened, he let out a torrent of Hungarian, yelling about who knows what. He went back to the classroom, picked up his pile of space drawings and scattered them over the teacher’s chair and desk. Then he left.
We never saw him again.
I told my parents the story. Maybe the KGB has him, said my father. The CIA probably moved him to another school, said my mother.
I asked the teacher what happened to Charles. She said she didn’t know, but that he never really belonged here, and I should be careful around people like him.