By Brian M. Howle
Once upon a time, there was a capricious little boy who was woefully unaware of the good intentions that were about to sweep him up in a life-altering chain of events.
The kid thought of himself as nothing special, although he had already begun to experience definite questions about “being different” from his friends. It seemed that absolute authority was going to be a problem for him, but only in matters of principle. He wasn’t lawless or evil towards others, just very prone to acts of defiance – or curiosity – when it came to accepting fact based solely on the word of others. He grew up in his small town without any thought of the finite decisions of life – career, romance, and lifestyle – and as long as he could make it through a day in school, to ride baseball-cards-in-the-spokes-for-engine-sound bicycles with his little group of friends, life was good.
The adults charged with planning the young boy’s life consulted specialists and experts, and – unbeknownst to him at the time – the boy underwent a battery of tests. As far as he was concerned, all of his friends had the same routine taking place within their own lives. His only shining difference, he thought, was his marked propensity for visits to the principal’s office on a weekly basis – visits, which were not for academic congratulations.
And so, when the principal showed up at the boy’s 2nd grade classroom door one day – huddled with his teacher in low, mumbling tones – the general consensus in the room was that the boy was on his way to yet another “attitude adjustment” at the beckoning of Mr. Woodbury’s fabled paddle. Sure enough, the teacher turned to the class and called the boy’s name, and a hushed silence fell over the classroom as he made his way toward them. The principal placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and stopped him just outside the doorway, and the boy watched his friend’s faces disappear with the closing door. Mr. Woodbury shepherded him a few feet down the hall, and then stopped at the next door, as he knocked upon it with a sense of urgency. The boy recognized the teacher immediately; not because young children are that tuned in to the entire adult population of their school – but because his mom was a teacher.
This was one of the 3rd grade teachers. Again, a low, mumbled conversation took place between the adults, while the students in the room began the low boil of inattentiveness and talking. Then Mr. Woodbury gently – but firmly – pushed the boy towards the teacher’s waiting arm, as she ushered him to a seat in the back of the class. Mr. Woodbury closed the door, and a dead silence fell over the room, as these older, higher-on-the-food-chain-than-him kids stared this “poser” down.
And with that, he was now in the 3rd grade.
Funny how adults always seem to lose touch with a child’s perspective of the world around them all. High scores on some of those tests indicated this boy was capable of much more than he was producing. Psychological profiling indicated that the lack of any appreciable attention span might be due to a lack of challenge. His teachers complained that he was distracting the class with disturbing regularity, but when questioned about the current subject matter, he always seemed to have the answer. With this information in hand, a decision had been made to make this change for the good of all, but especially for the boy.
Well, it worked. The boy, now living in a fifth dimension – too good for his peers; too young and un-cool for his new classmates – soon fell into obedient line. Using the mantle of “class clown”, he managed to placate the unspoken but understood aloofness afforded him by his classmates. It took the better part of the next four years for him to get “back to speed.” And somewhere in between, he managed to walk the delicate line between his old, best friends and his new, forced friends.
By the time his adopted class was ready for the big move over the high school for 7th grade, the powers that be began to question their prior actions in the 2nd-to-3rd grade jump. The behavior problems that had plagued him early on now reemerged during that 6th grade year with renewed gusto. The kid was getting to be a bit of a concern, because his emotional immaturity and behavioral problems far outweighed any academic advancement he may have accomplished.
The decision was made to hold him back – to return him to his original classmates. He wasn’t particularly upset over the decision, and after just a few days, was back to his old self. Actually, he was back to his old self just a leetle bit too much.
Unfortunately for all involved in this experiment gone wrong, the boy had accidentally paid attention during the previous year’s curriculum. It didn’t matter which subject – the boy could engage in any other activity he chose without fear, because when called upon by the exasperated teacher, he simply rattled off the answer and continued with his diversions.
The actual details remain unknown, but it is suspected that teacher made a tearful, desperate plea to administration officials to have the boy removed from her class before she would be committed to the ol’ happy farm. Whatever the circumstances, it was agreed to have him returned – immediately – to his adopted class over in the 7th grade.
The guidance counselor for the high school at the time was Ms. Shirley Drake. Raven-haired, bespeckled with heavy, black framed glasses and absolutely disarming with her radiant, genuine interest in all students, she befriended the boy instantly. She explained all of the changes between 6th and 7th grade in order of importance – that is, in order of importance to a 7th grader. She gave him a much-needed running start on catching back up with his class, which had the luxury of weeks of acclamation to the new way of doing things in the “big” school. But even with her leveling assistance, he felt great anxiety and fear as they made their way down the covered walkways that intertwined the grounds, connecting the elementary school buildings to the high school.
Along the way, when they reached the main entrance, she stopped and turned to him. Smiling, she held him by his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Well, kid, ready to show the world what ya got?” she asked. “Yes, ma’am,” was his cotton-mouthed reply. She ran her hand over his tasseled bangs and gently pushed him forward. “Come on, sport,” she chuckled, “let’s go break some hearts.” If he had only known what an ironic prophecy that would come to be …
The first period bell had already clanged out the tardy dings, so students were mercifully absent as the two clopped along in unison down the reverberating hallway. They stopped at the door to Mrs. Dillard’s classroom, where a chance glance through the window negated the need to knock. Mrs. Dillard opened the door and gave the boy a wide, beaming smile. “Welcome to the 7th grade, young man!” she warmly exclaimed, as Ms. Drake gave her the packets of paperwork that go along with such a move. Ms. Drake then bid her young charge goodbye and left, as Mrs. Dillard instructed him to take a seat over by the windows, in the back of the room.
Turning his attention to the class for the first time, he began making his way per her instructions. He saw many of his “new” friends right away, exchanging “Hey! How’s it going! Good to see ya!” looks with them upon eye contact, without saying anything out loud. Yep, there were his friends – Terry, and Charlotte, and Debbie, and Theron, and …
And then, his world – and his life – changed forever.
For there, hidden among the comforting familiarity of his classmates, was a stranger in town – someone he had never, ever seen in his 12 years on this earth. She looked up at him with big, brown, doe-like eyes – and he stopped dead in his tracks. All sounds ceased, all reasoning ceased, all ability to speak ceased, all field of vision narrowed to a small window; it was only the grace of God and the involuntary nature of our respiratory and circulatory systems that kept him alive – and allowed him to stumble, incoherently, to his desk.
We’re each born with an innate attribute: There is a pre-destined vision of our perfect match imprinted deep within our psyches – a blueprint, if you will – for what we perceive to be the perfect woman or man. Of course, the physical attraction and release of pheromones are compelling, but it goes beyond that. It’s that special inference, that known-without-knowing quality that we end up chasing for the rest of our lives. And if we’re lucky – at best – we have around a 50/50 chance of ever achieving it.
The flashing blueprint grid displays within his head and heart immobilized him after he took his seat. Until that moment, girls were only good for chasing with frogs; or, in cases where outbreaks of influenza or measles had taken out most of the guys, a necessary toleration to evenly fill out the teams for after-school football games. This was different. This was new. Most of all, this was scaring the hell out of him.
He managed to gather himself after a few minutes, deflecting interrogative whispers from his friends as he got it together. As Ms. Dillard directed the class to open a book to a page, he leaned over to take just a quick look at the new girl again.
Another bout of dizziness and confusion rendered him unresponsive for another five minutes.
Eventually, he managed to take notes and get past assignments from classmates as the class progressed. He kept tightly to the confines of his desk, making sure not to allow another stray glance at the dark-haired beauty that had cast this awful spell over him. When the bell finally sounded, the scrambling, controlled chaos of grabbing books and bags and belongings in the ritual dash for the hall erupted. Obscured by shuffling students, he lost sight of the girl. He grabbed the arm of a known friend. “Terry … who is that girl? Where did she come from?” he pleaded, motioning towards her now-vacant desk. “Oh,” his friend matter-of-factly responded, hiking his bookbag over his shoulder as he made his way to the door, “that’s (I’ll use a clever pseudonym for her) Marsha. She transferred from Williamsburg [High School]. She lives over at Clemmons’ Pond, you know, just past my house, just across the county line.”
Simply out of sheer fate – and the fact that in 7th grade, everyone pretty much still had the same classes – the girl’s path and his crossed several times that day. And each time, his usual command of the world or situation around him came completely unglued in her presence. But by the end of the day, he had come to realize what this terrible, new, debilitating affliction was – the intoxicating, confusing, all-encompassing sweetness of first love.
For a kid that usually created major blunders in thinking things through, he adapted to this new experience with incredible reason and acceptance. It was clear to him – a younger, excruciatingly immature boy – that he stood the veritable snowball’s chance in hell of ever capturing her heart. She was a stunning beauty, with a smile that simply made time stand still; and a soft, southern voice that exuded femininity as thickly and easily as a magnolia’s scent fills the still, summer night air. She carried herself with grace, style and maturity, far beyond the one-year difference in age with him. Of course, her suitors would not be simpletons of her own age, much less her classmates.
Not to mention one who unknowingly smashed her glasses to bits, when he came upon what he thought to be an empty glasses case on the floor just outside their homeroom. He proceeded to jump up and down on it a few times before feeling the crunchy remnants beneath his feet, and then the horror of reality set in when a passing friend looked down and said, “Hey, Marsha’s gonna love that, cuz.”
And while he had railed against all other unexplainable conflicts in his life up to this point, he somehow fashioned an acceptance of his fate that allowed him to carry on throughout the next six years, without resulting in reactionary outlets that befall so many young men. He knew that he would only love her from afar – but if so, it would be a minimized state of afar.
That aforementioned school connection – a mother who was a teacher, and who became the new guidance counselor shortly after his entry into high school – became a tool that he abused for blatant personal gain. Every August, he impatiently awaited the posting of the homeroom assignments in the office windows. If Marsha’s name was not among those in his assigned room, he lobbied for his reassignment to her room. If they had the same subjects, he would make sure his schedule was juggled to place him in all of those, too.
If you look through their old high school yearbooks, you’ll find the young man in close proximity to the beautiful girl in almost every school setting. Clubs were joined without question, simply because she was a member. He quickly dismissed participation in sports, because other extra curricula activities offered an excuse to be in her presence even more. Besides, their “clique” of friends always traveled to the games together, usually in the same car. Those precious few hours of riding, sitting beside his undeclared beloved, were the highlights of his high school years. Everyone seemed to know of his unrequited love, but no one ever seemed to speak of it – at least, not to him.
He was right about that age thing, and as they approached their final two years of high school, she began to date older boys. Now, her parents didn’t approve of these guys – and rightly so. But, blinded by love and eager to please her every wish, the boy would go over to her house and pick her up for a “phantom” date, waving goodnight to her parents as they drove away. Then he would stop at the arranged place, and she would climb in the car of her boyfriend, and off they would go.
This worked well, until one night, when the boy – at home as usual – heard his dog barking in her “Hey! Someone’s in the yard” voice. Pulling back the curtains, he peered out into the darkness – and saw her “date”, wildly waving his arms to get his attention. Quietly, the boy eased outside and ran over to the forbidden lovers. He learned that when they had driven up to her house, the lights – usually unlit at this late hour – were ominously on. Ominous, because it meant her parents were still up and awaiting her return, which on this particular night had run a bit later than usual.
So, he ran back inside, grabbed the keys to his car, and slipped back out. Marsha’s near-crisis was averted with a quickly concocted cover story of mechanical malfunctions that, suddenly and without warning, struck his poor Maverick on their way home. Her parents, relieved by her safe return, bid them goodnight and retired. She thanked him repeatedly and happily waved from the doorway at the carport, as he backed out of the driveway. Back at the arranged place, her boyfriend showered him with “thank you’s” and promises of alcohol acquisition for him whenever he wanted it. The boy turned down those offers, electing to make the fellow promise that – if he really loved her – he’d never take her home late again.
He thought about that night often, in the years that followed. Long after their graduation from high school, his love for her remained, even through his failed attempts at other relationships. But in the interim, she fell in love with and married another man, and they have a grown family now. And of course, it will never be, between the boy and this girl – as time changes all things and removes even the thought of our options. The boy eventually married – and divorced. But, to his credit, he’s still trying to figure out how it works.
As he got older and experienced different relationships, he came to realize how truly special Marsha had been to him. It occurred to him that, while he had probably fantasized about nearly every girl he had ever known (outside of family and teachers), she had never entered that spectrum.
Upon reflection, he realized that the closest thing to a fantasy with her was this one recurring scenario that filled his school day dreams: It consisted of him picking her up for a date, driving over to the beach for supper, and then going to their favorite beach club for a night of dancing and conversation. At the end of the night, he walked her to her door, allowing her to reach the top step while remaining on the carport to even the height factor, whereupon he received the big payoff – a nice, quick hug, accompanied by a small, gloriously fulfilling kiss that lasted but mere seconds.
Sorry, Harlequin fans … that was as racy as it got. If his truest, most sincere intentions didn’t include the expected debauchery and lust from a guy, it had to be true love.
It’s funny how, at the time, the boy could never seem to find the words – or the courage – to tell this girl how much he loved her. Because of all the real – or imagined – talents the boy may have had, the mastery of words was his greatest asset. He pursued his talent and, after a few youthful distractions, finally found the time and place to tell his stories – of career, romance, and lifestyle. And yes, to this day, he still can’t tell her how he felt.
But he sure can write about it.
Oh yeah … Happy Valentine’s Day to you all. Be sure to tell that special someone in your life that you love him or her.
I know that I have.
The previous column was originally published February 14, 2002.