Two Shy Sixth-Grade Sweethearts

MY first experience of ``going steady'' with someone was spent in complete silence. This offered a wholly different perspective on ``worrying about what to say.''

My friend Roger was the intermediary for a slender, freckle-faced boy I'll call Joe.

Joe moved into our neighborhood at about the same time that spring weather ushered in cherry blossoms, warmer winds, and a wave of new feelings that unexpectedly hit the sixth and seventh graders of our school.

Boys and girls who had bicycled together most of their young lives were suddenly awkward and shy with each other.

Our world was changing from an environment of apparent predictability to a place surrounded by un-familiar chaos. Going steady was just a symptom of a larger group of feelings that no one seemed to be able to define or understand.

It was like one of those ideas carried along on the strength of popular support, but clearly inexplicable to its constituents. One night Roger's familiar voice was on the phone.

``Joe wants to know,'' he said, ``if you'll go steady.''

``Sure,'' I said, giving it only a bit more thought than I did about to what to pack in my lunch.

My earlier exper-iences with romance had occurred in fourth grade, when another boy flew airplanes to my desk and conducted his courtship in wordless admiration.

I thought it the most natural thing in the world that Roger would become the ``mouthpiece'' for another silent suitor.

Unfamiliar with what to ``do'' when you went steady, I simply continued to live my life as I always had. When I passed Joe in the hall, we barely looked at each other.

At a school party, for the entirety of the one song we spent dancing together, Joe's eyes seemed fixed on a spot in the lime-green gymnasium wall. Much too busy examining this part of the scenery, Joe could assume the role of ``preoccupied'' as opposed to ``nervous.''

The dance ended. Joe handily slid around as if he were shedding a coat and retreated to the side of the gym where the boys were lined up nudging and bumping one another.

Roger was enthusiastic, though. He kept up a running banter about Joe's virtues. I suspect he did the same thing to Joe when speaking of my good character.

As we rode our bikes after school or on the weekends, Roger coached me on what to say or do when in contact with Joe.

Never having gone steady himself, Roger, nonetheless, carried that air of self-confidence that made me believe that, clearly, he knew how to handle this situation better than I did.

I meant to try Roger's suggestions, but I just didn't feel comfortable. This was my first experience of how easy it is to talk to a friend, and how difficult communication becomes when you're expected to be something other than what you are.

Roger gave this romance his best efforts, but it is difficult for one person to maintain a relationship, especially when that person isn't in it.

Poor Roger even-tually gave up on Joe and me. As surely as a sailboat stalls when the wind dies down, Joe and I had no momentum to carry us without Roger.

What I felt for Joe could have been caused as easily by the weather as the changes oc-curring within me. It couldn't have been too serious, as I can't remember feeling any sadness about our breakup. In fact, I don't remember the breakup at all. The memory is as quiet as the re-lationship.

My teenage son, Dylan, is incredulous at this story.

``You mean,'' he asks in wonder, ``that you didn't say one word to him?''

``Zero,'' I answer.

His look of astonishment and vague disgust makes me wonder if adolescence has changed but I know better. Some things will always be awkward when you try them for the first time.

It only took Roger one turn of playing matchmaker to give up on me. I'm sure it was hard to sponsor a friend who wouldn't speak.

Roger and I see each other very seldom, but we stay in touch. He has a great wife, whom he met and courted without my help or advice.

I don't know what happened to Joe. I hope he found someone who inspired more communication than I did.

As for me, I still carry the valuable lesson I learned that year. Love may be the greatest thing on earth, but it should bring out the best in you and is no easier to orchestrate and plan than the arrival of spring or a sunny day.

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