By Carolyn Fahey
Recently I was with a group of old friends when the subject of first loves came up. Each of us offered to tell a story, and when it was my turn to entertain with my memories, my first inclination was to share stories about my first high school sweetheart, but then, out of nowhere, I remembered George.
George had blue blue eyes and blond, curly hair and freckles, with a smile with white white teeth and, more than that, a warmth that I had never recognized in any boy before.
I was eleven years old and in sixth grade. It was 1954, and until I met George, I did not like very many boys. I honestly could not believe that my father, whom I adored, had ever been, well, a boy. Boys were mean and mischievous and smelly and thus thoroughly unappealing to me. The boys I had known best were my cousins, mostly, and one of them crushed my finger with a lead pipe on a dare (which I was stupid and stubborn enough to take), and his brother punctured my eardrum with a stick. As I recall, he was poking at me while I jumped around on top of a cement walk, and I have to admit that I was laughing and enjoying the game for a while, but, nevertheless, I didn’t like him after the punctured eardrum issue.
I had been a shy child, just recently emerging from my cocoon, slowly developing a curiosity about the world outside my family home, which was comprised of my mother, father, grandmother, older sister, two younger sisters, and a baby brother. They were all part of the circle of family that I cherished and as part of the home and solace to which I went each day after school. Lately, though, things were changing in my head, and I began to put aside my dolls and become intrigued with what was going on at school. My classmates were having all kinds of adventures, it seemed to me, and once sixth grade began, I set out to interact more with the other kids, and found that not only were some of the girls fun, but to my surprise, some of the boys in my school didn’t seem so bad after all.
At this same moment, I was slowly growing out of what Mother called my “awkward period,” which was a euphemism for being taller than most everyone my age, and skinny, with weird teeth and suffering from one of my mother’s famous home permanents — I remember telling her around this time, after the last disastrous frizzy mop — that I was through with the home perms — and she glumly agreed to leave me alone (her eyes were on sister number three, her next victim.) So, things were changing, something like a “social button” turned on, and if felt good.
Becky was one of my new friends, and she was smarter, funnier and more popular than I. For some unknown, marvelous reason, she reached out to me that fall. She invited me to do stuff — like play basketball in the courts after school was over. I had never done anything after school except homework. “People do that?” I wondered, but I didn’t voice my surprise to my new pal. I just said, “OK, I’ll meet you back here at four o’clock.” Life was taking me along with it, and I was game. I raced home that first day, shed my navy blue school jumper, put on my plaid woolen Bermuda shorts and a top. It was exhilarating to tell Mother that I was off to play basketball with my friends. “I’ll be home before dinner,” I called to her, and I could tell that she was pleased that her introverted daughter was moving beyond the world of a child. I was lucky to have such a mother.
I jumped on the 72nd Street bus and raced to the courts. Becky was there and greeted me in her easy way, and she introduced me to a couple of her girlfriends. We were not terribly good basketball players it turned out, but we were tall and the ball went in the basket from time to time, and so we were contented. It was fun; actually, it was more than fun; it was thrilling to be out and about instead of living in my self-inflicted isolation at home.
On the next outing, just a few days later, George Martin (the boy with the blond curly hair and blue eyes), a seventh grader, showed up at the courts with a couple of his pals. “Hey Becky, can we join in?” he asked. She looked at me, and I thought I caught a glimmer in her eyes, and she asked me, “Is it OK with you? George is a neighbor of mine.” “It’s OK,” I said, but was thinking “Boys want to play basketball with us? This wasn’t anything I had expected.” And so it began that the boys would join us, and we had more fun than ever.
I looked forward every afternoon to the basketball event. Although not all of the kids came every day, Becky and I always showed up, and so did George. It often was just the three of us, shooting baskets and laughing and making fun of each other.
Sometimes George and I would go for a Coke or an egg cream across the street at Aunt Jenny’s after Becky headed off somewhere, and it was natural and easy. There was no nervousness when I was with George — that would come later when I was with older boys — in my early teens. Instead, this was a comfortable friendship with no awkwardness or embarrassment — no chills either. I just remember simply being happy to be with him, and we shared lots of stories about ourselves and our families. He never told me that he thought I was pretty, and I never expected him to. And he would smile his beautiful smile and laugh at the right moments. We began to meet in the schoolyard before the bell rang, just George and me. It would be our only chance to chat or plan our afternoon before we ran off to line up with our classes and march into the school building.
I was in homeroom one November morning, busy getting out my books and assignments for our first class. While rummaging through what I am sure was a disorderly schoolbag, I heard the din of classroom noises get louder. My classmates were raising their voices and becoming more and more excited. There were, by the way, fifty children in my class in our 1954 Brooklyn Catholic elementary school, and so it didn’t take too much commotion for a lot of noise. Sister Marion, poor thing, did not have a good grasp on the discipline side of things, and the class often got out of hand and today was no exception. Sister was totally overwhelmed. The roar became louder and louder with some of the kids standing on their desks. It was what I imagined a riot would be like. Then, suddenly, I heard my name. One kid was shouting something about “Fahey.” I lifted up my head to hear better — “What in the world is going on?”
I looked up from my desk and at the front of the classroom was George Martin — his face redder than I had ever seen it — beet red. What were the kids shouting? I realized that George was here to deliver a message to Sister Marion, and then I clearly heard my classmates’ chant — “He’s Fahey’s boyfriend — he’s Fahey’s boyfriend!” They were pointing at George and then at me, my mouth agape. I was appalled and humiliated, but mostly I felt sorry for George, who seemed to be in pain standing there, hopeless to get away until he was dismissed. It seemed to last an eternity, but I am sure it was only a couple of minutes. Sister Marion began to scream to the class, “Calm down — sit in your seats — I will not have this raucous.” As George slowly slinked out of the classroom, Sister stole a glance at me that went into my soul, and I wondered what she was thinking as I cowered at my desk. I supposed she said to herself, “It’s always the quiet ones.” Suddenly, I didn’t care what she thought—I didn’t care what my bratty classmates thought I hated them. I just wanted them to stop saying that George was my boyfriend. I shouted to them, “It’s not true — it’s not true!” Eventually, they calmed down and went back to their work.
After he left, my first reaction was shock that my classmates had even noticed what I did or to whom I spoke. I realized that I had been oblivious to the sixth grade social network, as it were. This was a world I knew nothing of, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I needed to talk to my big sister, Dolores, who was thirteen and wiser in the ways of the world than I. After confiding in her that evening, she consoled me by proclaiming, first of all, that my classmates were a bunch of babies.
“And liars!” I added. I was relieved to have her tell me that this event was sure to blow over; everyone would forget about it, and George and I would remain friends.
Next morning I arrived at the playground early, yesterday’s unhappy episode repressed from my eleven-year-old memory, and when I saw him, I greeted him as always with a big smile. (Hadn’t Dolores told me not to worry?) As he walked toward me, I noticed that he looked very serious, and my stomach flipped. I let him talk first, and held my breath. He was so uncomfortable that it took a while for him to look into my eyes, and he finally said, “You know that we can’t talk anymore, right?” I hesitated to answer and just stared at him because I didn’t know that; no, I really didn’t. I began to apologize for my classmates’ behavior, but he stopped me, and once again asked me if I understood.
It took me a few seconds to fully absorb what he was telling me, and then I said, “OK, George, sure, I understand.” I may have even smiled. But I didn’t understand, not one bit. I don’t remember our saying much more, except goodbye, and I remember that he smiled at me before he turned to walk across the playground and out through the wrought-iron gates.
I didn’t cry; I don’t remember being terribly upset; but I knew this moment was important, even if I wasn’t sure of what I was feeling. Now, I look back and see that what I was experiencing was my first twinge of heartbreak, but since I was incapable of recognizing that as an eleven-year old girl, I turned and walked across the playground to meet up with my classmates, hoping that I would not be late for homeroom. I remember looking over my shoulder for one last glance.
Years later, I thought of George and realized that he was the touchstone male for me. There were other boys, and then men, who would have the metaphorical barriers of the silly children in class who humiliated George, and one of us had to walk away. But I kept up my search for a person who would laugh with me and talk with me, and whose smile made me happy, the one without the barriers and, lucky me, I found him many years later. He doesn’t have blue eyes or blond hair, but he enriches my life with the warmth and friendship I learned to appreciate as a young sixth-grade girl.
Carolyn Fahey, a native of Brooklyn NY, now lives and writes in Weaverville NC. (email@example.com)