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Pretend He's Your Sister
Bil Gilbert
February 17, 1969
That is the kind of forthright advice a New Jersey surgeon gives the timid at his aggression clinic for overprivileged boys
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February 17, 1969

Pretend He's Your Sister

That is the kind of forthright advice a New Jersey surgeon gives the timid at his aggression clinic for overprivileged boys

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A new boy, call him Ronnie, shows up on Sunday in Dr. Max Novich's recreation room. He is a dark-haired, pale, frail 7-year-old. There are tremors around his mouth and a rigidity to his wide-eyed stare that suggest Ronnie is teetering on the brink of hysteria. He has a death grip on the hand of his father, who also looks worried, not to the point of hysteria but worried like a man who has burned a bridge and is wondering why on earth he was so quick with the match.

Dr. Novich's recreation room is in the basement of his expensive American Home Classic Style house (Tudor-type paneling with Holiday Inn-type fixtures) in the expensive American Home Classic Style neighborhood of Maplewood, South Orange, N.J. Maplewood is the turf for a lot of doctors, shrinks, lawyers, admen and cloak-and-suiters who have made or are making it big in the jungle across the Hudson. When Ronnie and his father come down the stairs, Max Novich is converting the recreation room into a gym, padding the fireplace hearth with a tumbling mat, hanging up four light punching bags and breaking out a lot of pillowy, kid-sized boxing headgear and gloves. He is yelling at two of the dozen or so boys already in the room. These two are rolling around under some folding chairs punching each other. "O.K., O.K., Eddie, Ray—not now—cut it out." Dr. Novich is also waving a copy of the Sunday New York Times, showing it to no one in particular, saying to the same party, "Hey, how about this, I just saw the newspaper story about me being named chief physician for the U.S. team in the Maccabiah Games. I'm on the page with the shipping news. How about that?"

"Max, you mean you didn't know about it until you read it in the Times?" fondly needles a father of one of the little boys.

"Sure, sure. I knew about it for I don't know how long," Max grins, "but it hadn't been in the Times before. Everybody knows now."

Then Dr. Novich acknowledges Ronnie and his father. The father he knows because Ronnie's old man is a professional colleague, a physician. If you happen to be in South Orange on Sunday afternoon and break your leg, rupture your appendix or catch a touch of schizophrenia, have them take you to Max's basement. Medically speaking, that is where the action is.

"Hey, hey," yells Dr. Novich, grabbing Jim by the arm and pulling him over to a stranger. "Jim, tell this fella why you brought your kid here. Go ahead, tell him."

"Well," says Jim, who is a hesitant, soft-spoken man, or perhaps just appears that way as almost anybody up against Max Novich will, "Ronnie is, I guess you'd say, a little unaggressive. He has trouble holding his own with his peers—the other boys in the neighborhood. Max has helped some other boys like this and we kind of thought that...."

"O.K., O.K.," interrupts Dr. Novich, dropping Jim's arm and snatching big-eyed Ronnie away from his father and dragging him into the middle of the room. The other boys and their fathers stare at this new kid. Max shouts at him but only incidentally to him. "O.K. Here is this new kid. The very first time for him. I have never laid eyes on him before. I don't know anything about him, but he is obviously timid and uncoordinated."

Ronnie and his father take a few more turns on the old tension machine but neither seems particularly surprised. They look as if maybe it is all sort of a d�j� vu scene, like they have had a few nightmares in which they found themselves in just this kind of a pickle.

"But we are going to start right now," Dr. Novich says, thumping Ronnie on the shoulder. "He is going to be aggressive. The system never fails. Gimme some gloves."

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