A dance lesson

It's prom season, a time when dreams come true, or worse. It reminds me of a boy who asked me to the middle school dance.

I can't even tell you his last name, it's been so many years. But the look on Steve's face when he asked the big question is something I can see clearly. Steve - a boy with heft more Pillsbury doughboy than muscular, and a face that made Opie's look manly - stood there waiting for an answer.

I couldn't think fast enough. Wouldn't I be humiliated going with this boy? ("Humiliation" in a 13-year-old's universe is usually triggered by fashion, skin condition, or with whom you're standing when someone really cool walks by.)

Yet, my response hung in the air, waiting for words.

You see, I had this mother who, despite my great efforts to tune her out, had taught me the importance of being kind. Not wanting to hurt Steve's feelings, I lacked the confidence and grace to decline this invitation benignly. I heard myself say, "Sure, I'll go with you," and kicked myself afterward.

On the big night, Steve came in his best bib and tucker - a sport coat that didn't quite match his shirt and slacks. His red hair glistened, slicked back; his face had been scrubbed to a sheen. He looked like a choir boy. I was already shrinking. I didn't want Hell's Angels, but a choir boy?

"Wow, you look ... you look ... terrific," he swooned when he saw me.

When we arrived at the school gym, decorated with streamers and aluminum foil "starlight," I just knew my entire class locked a frozen stare on the two of us. Snickers came from my friends on the sidelines. Steve, beaming with pride and trying so hard to please, put his arm around me as "Blue Moon" came on, the first slow dance.

"Steve, excuse me a minute," I said backing away, my tears about to fall. I left him looking perplexed, ran out the door, and walked all the way home. The cruelty of abandoning Steve made me queasy, but misery spurred me on.

Surprised when her daughter slunk through the door, my mother wrangled a wailing confession out of me. And she insisted, in no uncertain terms, I go back to the dance and face the music.

Two hours later I found Steve by himself at the side of the gym, looking solemn and hurt. We struggled through the rest of the evening, but clearly our friendship was beyond repair. And to think I wanted to save his feelings by saying "yes" to the dance!

Through the years I learned how it feels to be the one unfavored.

I've been left mid-song in affairs more serious than a school dance. Life toughens our skin, but it also makes us realize that behind genuine kindness there must be integrity. We may think the truth is too painful to hear or something we can't bear to tell another person. In the end, it is the higher road. Slates are rubbed clean and hearts are free to heal.

To this day, when I'm faced with an issue of false kindness, I think of that dance. It reminds me that true kindness has some backbone. Dealing with people's feelings is often a delicate matter. And do we ever master the art? Yet there are occasions when an honest "no" is better than an insincere "yes."

Steve helped me learn a valuable lesson. I'll never forget him, and I beg his forgiveness.

*Kathryn Renner is a freelance writer and a host of Literary News, a radio program of the Washington Talking & Braille Library, in Seattle.

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