My life in grade school, where I spent the entire day in one classroom with one teacher took an abrupt turn upon reaching junior high. Suddenly, and without notice, I was thrust into a maelstrom of bodies, unfamiliar faces, strange new places. Now, I had five or six teachers in a day, and as many classrooms. Navigating the hallways, dodging bodies, not getting lost, transitioning from a big fish in a small pond to a guppy, all were new and daunting experiences for me.
Among the positives, making new friends, experiencing a variety of subjects, vastly improved hot lunches that actually offered variety and flavor! On the other side, homework, competition, insecurity. How does one deal with being seated alongside large, imposing ninth graders when trying to eat one’s mashed potatoes with turkey gravy? I had yet to be able to impress with my baseball skills, leaving only one option: try to make them laugh. Sometimes that worked, other times not so much.
Not far into that seventh-grade year was the tragedy that would change our lives. I couldn’t begin to guess, among adults, who were supporters or non-supporters of JFK, but I doubt you would find a junior high or high schooler anywhere that didn’t adore him. When we lost him, we felt like overnight, the world had changed forever, and maybe it did, for us. The light dimmed, and never seemed to brighten much after that.
My fondness for redheads didn’t share the same fate as that of Gloria, who, through no fault of her own, was relegated to a dusty corner of my memory. This fondness followed me, nipping at my heels, waiting for me to let my guard down.
But, despite all that, I made it through the seventh grade, and was poised on the brink of meeting the next potential heartbreak of my life, who, unlike Gloria, cannot be named in this narrative. While no one but me even remembers Gloria, in this case, even a first initial might screw the pooch. Can I say that? Well of course I can, it’s my story.
Another redhead, and she knew I existed! In fact, she made inquiries of my younger brother, a year behind me, seeking knowledge of the tall, blond, handsome eighth grader. And then, not finding out much about him, she asked about me. Not long after that, I was approached by one of her friends, I don’t remember who. In those days, boyfriend/girlfriend hookups were negotiated by an intermediary. No names, but you can imagine it going like this:
“Do you know who Blank is, with the red hair?” “Uhhhhh….” “She thinks you’re cute.” “Hmmm….” “Do you think she’s cute?” “Um yeah I guess so.” “She likes you.” “Uhhhhh….” “Do you like her?” “Um yeah I guess so.”
Courtship was no easy thing for young teens back then, at least until you moved beyond the kickoff and got settled into the first quarter. It wasn’t as simple as clubbing her over the head and dragging her by the hair to your cave.
In the end, I vanquished my shyness, and being the take-charge kind of girl she was, she became my girlfriend. I was smitten. And why not, she was as sweet as a honey dew melon in August, had beautiful red hair, freckles in most of the same places Gloria did, and her very own intermediary.
But, like most young romances, destined to fail, it too ended, over something so silly as a phone joke. At that age, at that time, the opportunity to talk with your girlfriend outside of school hours seldom occurred on a face to face basis. This was complicated by the fact that she lived in East Wenatchee, and I of course, lived eight miles away, in Rock Island. It wasn’t as though I could just walk down the street and knock on her door. Cell phones, along with lots of other things, had yet to be invented, so landline phone calls were the order of the day. It was during one of these calls that it happened.
I called, her dad answered, he always answered, without fail. I asked to speak with Blank. He grunted, and put the phone down, at which point she picked it up and started talking. Really nice. Not like someone who had their very own intermediary. And there was giggling in the background, and then the voice on the phone was replaced by the real Blank. And they were laughing. As it turns out, her older sister sounded just like her. I said “Not very funny having your dumb sister pretend to be you.” She said “Don’t call my sister dumb.” Click. Click.
And just like that, what could have been a romance for the ages, red hair, freckles and all, vanished from my life. We never spoke again. Sure, we passed in the halls, we looked out of the side of our eyes at each other, but neither was willing to budge, not one inch. Not even a personal intermediary could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And Blank, should you ever read this, and if you remember me, and those days so long ago, I would like to say that I am sorry. If it were mine to do over, I would not have called your sister dumb. She had a very nice voice. And, if memory serves me well, she also had red hair.