Erotic Notion #25: Elementary School Amore
By Hapax Legomenon

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What was life like before you learned about sex? How did it feel?

Some are introduced to sex prematurely, either by accident or malicious design. Others learn by reading a book or watching an explicit film or hearing older friends describe things a boy and girl can do. Today's elementary school students are stumbling upon adult web pages, viewing it as a sort of gross comic entertainment. This encounter can be upsetting or even traumatic (which only years of reassurance or therapy can overcome). It can be a moment of hilarity or the start of a long journey of discontent.

But what it like before sex?

Three memories stay with me.


As a 9 year old boy I was swimming, playing baseball and board games, going to scout meetings and riding my bike around the neighborhood. I knew the girls around the block and was polite but rarely spoke to them. In a word, they were boring. As athletes girls were inferior; they said bossy things and talked about dolls and rollerskating. At school it was different. Girls were funny and talkative and artistic and cute – yes, I noticed these things. Girls had purses and pretty clothes and always knew the answer. When they sat next to me, I felt I had to behave; I had to treat them differently. I knew that boys and girls belonged together in a singsong way. When the teachers divided us into groups, it would always be boy-girl-boy-girl, as though girls were some kind of buffer against anarchy. Intellectually I knew girls were important – they were after all 50% of the class – but I didn't know why they were important. Why they mattered.

Neighborhood kids usually played outside, so we rarely went into people's houses (except to use the restroom or get a drink). For months I played with a rough-and-tumble boy named Henry. One day he took me upstairs and showed me a large cardboard box. Perhaps it was from a refrigerator or a television. But it was big enough to sit inside, and judging from the creases and its place in the bedroom, he had been playing with it for days. I must have crawled inside for a few minutes; perhaps we used it as a fort and moved on to some other game.

We were talking about nothing in particular when he blurted out a secret. "Do you know what I'm going to do with that box?"

"No, what?"

"I'm going to bring Jenny Langdon over my house, and we're going to sit inside that box. Together, all alone, just the two of us. And do you know what we're going to do? When we're inside the box, we're going to close the lid until it's totally dark. And then we're going to kiss – naked!!"

Henry pronounced those last words with glee, aware that what he was describing was so forbidden and thrilling that adults should never find out. We quickly turned to some other game, but I couldn't get the image out of my mind. It seemed so bizarre! Besides, what if you got caught?

Jenny was a lovely girl from school whom I knew vaguely. So nice and friendly; how could she be capable of that? Still, although the thought of a boy and girl kissing naked in a box struck me as ridiculous, it also was alluring. If I had to choose any girl to kiss naked in a box, Jenny wouldn't be a bad choice. I knew what kissing was, and I knew that girls and boys did it, although I was not ready for that (and frankly, it did not bother me at all). And I imagined the clumsy limbs groping blindly in the box, the embarrassing lack of boundaries, the way Jenny would sit next to me, laughing, whispering into my ear. It all sounded like a big joke that one did on a dare; would girls ever want to do that? Henry said Jenny was going to, and maybe that's what boys and girls did. Maybe she was even eager.

But how could you find out? How could you find a girl who would agree to crawl inside that kind of box? How did Henry persuade her?

About 6 years later I ran into Jenny again. She had transferred to my middle school. She was 15 years old, a bosomy beauty, a cheerleader, a girl used to male attention and flattery. She went on dates and even had a boyfriend. I was surprised to see her again—and certainly she remembered me from elementary school, although we didn't have much to talk about. Henry had left my life long ago, but that indelible image of Henry and Jenny naked in the box stayed with me. And look—-now Jenny was a woman! How did Henry know Jenny would become so gorgeous?

Then it hit me: Henry had lied! Jenny, the box, the naked kissing—it was all one ridiculous lie. When he first said it, I had wondered, but in the back of my mind I thought, maybe it did happen. But in 8th grade it became clear; what Henry described was not a plan but a wish. He had used words to turn Jenny into an agreeable plaything with semi-obscene inclinations. And stupid fool that I was, I believed him!

By that time I knew all about sex and was adept at mentally undressing all the girls (even teachers) in my school. I was already directing lavish erotic movies in my mind even though talking with a girl still required superhuman courage.

Jenny had also changed. She learned to regard male attention as a pleasant inconvenience that came with being popular. She liked being cute and flaunting it, but knew that some boys would try to take things too far, concocting a slutty version of herself far removed from reality. That was how gossip spread. I had no special insight into this girl, except that the fantasy version of herself (a version created by Henry, myself and others), would be something she'd spend her teenage years trying to kill.

Another childhood moment.

In second grade desks were grouped in fours, and so were the students. We sat boy-girl-boy-girl, changing places every few weeks for variety. At second grade the main problem was boredom. You had worksheets to complete, math problems to zip through and maps to color. But the smart kids finished early, leaving ample time to talk and goof around.

I sat next to Stacy, a tall talkative girl who liked being the center of attention. She was smart, but not the intellectual type. She was just somebody who talked a lot.

Once during quiet time (when we lay our heads on the desk for 10 minutes), I leaned over to Stacy and whispered something in her ear. To this day I have no idea what I asked, but it was something about schoolwork: perhaps to borrow a pencil or to ask a question about the assignment. When I began whispering, Stacy said loudly, "Teddy, are you trying to kiss me?" The rest of the class giggled.

I repeated my question, but she said, "Teddy's trying to kiss me!" Laughter.

"I am not," I said firmly, loud enough for the others to hear. I tried to ask again.

"Teddy, if you're going to try to kiss me, I'm going to tell the teacher."

"I'm not trying to kiss you!" I said. Everyone laughed again, and the teacher warned us to keep quiet. Stacy smiled, making it clear that she was enjoying my irritation, regarding it as a kind of game.

How that girl irritated me! I felt the victim of injustice and false witness, deciding to stay mad at this girl forever.

Well, not forever. Not even as long as a day. A few years later, we ended up in the same middle school and even the same classes. Stacy had changed. She was taller and gorgeous and a woman—no doubt about it—but still the mischief maker. In buses and school hallways, she kidded around with me—along with dozens of other guys. I lost count of her boyfriends and gave up trying to remain friends with her. As it happened, I ran into her often enough as a teen around the neighborhood (even though we went to different high schools) and even at my part time job during college. Every time I saw her (only minutes at a time), we would "catch up" and she would make some joking reference to school memories: drama club, mock trial, swim team. She kept me vaguely apprised of her situation: now seeing someone, working for a radio station, living with dad. And every time she left, I would think, "what a fun gal!" and "if only I had the courage to ask her out."

Stacy had mastered the fine art of flirtation. She could flirt with anybody, anyplace, anytime. I went back to memories of Stacy in middle school, remembering the way she teased people (especially guys). She wasn't preternaturally pretty, but the teasing drove guys crazy. It was flattering and infuriating. But just when it began to be fun, she'd go off and find some other guy to talk to. When the guys got together to talk about girls, Stacy's name always came up, though not in a vulgar I-want-to-fuck-her kind of way. The guys viewed Stacy as indomitable, like a bronco one rode for only a few seconds before being tossed. But being tossed was half the fun, and in fact it only increased the desire to try again.

I think back to that day in second grade, the day of that false accusation. Back then, she seemed to know what I wanted before I did. By making the accusation, she was in fact planting suggestions. Or was she? Years, even decades later, I can't decide whether she was dangling an opportunity or just enjoying the chance to make a scene. What did she want and what did I want? Now I understood: what she said was far less important than how she said it or that she was saying anything at all; the complaints of a woman are always more endearing (and revealing) than polite distance.

Before Stacy gained sophistication, subtlety and charm, I was an early victim of her flirtations; decades later, it is something I wear as a badge of honor.

Third memory.

The tale of my first True Love. True Love. Jaded adults may scoff, but affections in elementary school are no less intense than later passions.

In 4th grade I shared a table with two people who became my best friends for the year. The first was my True Love (T.L.) whom I will describe below. The other person was George, a clever talented boy who played both tennis and the piano.

T.L. was a well-behaved cheerful girl with good grades. She was pretty in an understated way, and yet, as time went on, it was impossible not to notice her or enjoy her arrival. She wore simple outfits that her mother must have sewn; I always noticed the peculiar designs, the soft puffy fabric, the way it made me want to brush my fingers against the back of her sleeve. In a class photo she posed like a miniature Renoir with hands folded on her lap. To a casual observer her slight fullness of body might seem an imperfection, but it made her seem more friendly, more human, more thoughtful.

T.L. sat between George and me. The three of us worked and played together. Compared to Stacy's raucous teasing, T.L. was positively sedate, and around her George and I were on our best behavior. We both liked T.L, and already a little friendly competition had started about who would sit next to her in class. It never reached the point of jealousy; it was more like a race, much as we raced to be the first to solve the math problems (I was always first). George was clever and funny; I had to give him that; he was also genuinely nice. If T.L. preferred him over me, I could at least understand her choice. I didn't have as many interesting hobbies and was a bit egotistical (yes, I knew it even then), but I wrote funny stories and was a math whiz (my main source of pride). For all-round personality, George was better and nicer. But I had a secret weapon: I loved her more.

To improve the chance of sitting next to her, I came to class early. I did everything to be in the same line or group as T.L. (although I never ate with her in the lunchroom; for 4th graders, coed dining was still the ultimate taboo). During a normal day it was common for students to hold hands; teachers frequently asked us to hold hands on our way to recess or the music room or the cafeteria. A few times I experienced the thrill of holding T.L.'s hand. Once, in the hallway, when everyone was holding hands with their partner (and I was T.L's partner), I kept my hand locked in hers longer than usual. I had intended to let go eventually, but to my amazement, T.L. kept holding on. Long after everyone had stopped, T.L and I were still doing it. Eventually we had to let go (we couldn't disregard societal norms so flagrantly), but it became clear that she enjoyed the hand-holding too.

From that point on, our mutual affections became obvious. Even George, (who still hung around us) respected our quiet preferences. If I sat somewhere, a few seconds later, she would sit beside me. And if she sat at some place, I was expected to take the closest seat. As we sat, our hands would brush "accidentally" against one another, and then one of us (usually me) would take the initiative to resume the hand-holding. We didn't talk about it or even look at one another when it happened; it was too pleasant (and embarrassing) to acknowledge. Sometimes when there was a shortage of books, we would share one, holding the same book together. While our hands embraced under the table, our shoulders leaned against one another and we pretended not to be enjoying the closeness.

When the teacher showed a movie, students sat or even lay on the rug to watch. On one such day I was lying down on the rug, hoping that T.L. would lie next to me. She did. While the lights were on and the teacher was threading the film, everybody was talking and I was cracking jokes with other boys. But once the movie started and the lights went out, I grasped her hand into mine, and we watched the movie in silence. The movie lasted only 20 minutes, but in hand-holding time it seemed like forever.

At some point I became aware that T.L. was not just a friendly face or a clammy hand, but a body I longed to be close to. I was not yet thinking about sex, but it was the first time I became aware of other ways to be close than holding hands. The movie was running; it was entertaining, and the class was laughing. I glanced at her, moving my eyes from her face to the screen and her face again. Back and forth, back and forth. To my astonishment, she was doing the same thing, with her smile barely visible in the darkness. Our glances met and for once did not turn away. I gripped her hand, and she gripped mine firmly, for that was the only way we knew to communicate the feelings deep inside us.

Flash forward to the last day of school. I don't know how T.L. did it, but she slipped a note into my bag which I found at home. It read:

Dear —

I love you very much and want to marry you. I want to kiss you and be with you all the time and spend the rest of my life with you. We could live in a house together and have a family, and we will always be happy. I am glad I know you and hope to see you more next year.

Ok, these were not the literal words, but the first two lines are pretty much what I remembered. The letter staggered me. To say that it filled me with joy was an understatement; it hinted at new possibilities and new kinds of attainments. She wanted the same things I did before I thought about it.

I wish this story had an ending, but remember, I was in 4th grade. From this point on my memory is unclear and full of gaps.

After receiving the note, I burst with the desire to tell someone. I went home and told my sister (one year younger). After making her promise not to tell another living soul, I showed her the letter. Within hours, she had broken the promise. First, she told my little brother, then a friend, and then Mom and Dad. It even became a dinner table conversation and a family joke. I was devastated. Just to hear them say the name was a sacrilege. As a result, I tried to block the girl from my mind.

When we came to school again, something had changed. My infatuation with this girl had departed, not through malice or willful indifference, but just because time had passed.

In 7th grade my family moved to another neighborhood, which meant going to a new school and making new friends. I managed okay; I played on the basketball team, acted in plays and starred in the math club. During 7th and 8th grade I had attained the status of math prodigy; a special bus brought me everyday to an advanced geometry class at the high school.

I was brilliant. I shined in math competitions organized by the school. During my 8th grade, my school hosted a math competition for all the schools in the district, so lots of unfamiliar smart students were mobbing in the auditorium. To my delight, some old friends from elementary school were there to represent the other middle school. Then I saw True Love. Lovely as ever, albeit shorter and yes, even thinner (or maybe I had just grown). Amazingly, she was with two other friends from elementary school, including my longtime friend, George. I gave them a brief hello, unsure of what to say. Were we supposed to catch up? I didn't know them well anymore, while the three of them seemed to be have become better acquainted. No matter. I had new friends too and a reputation as a math prodigy to uphold.

Two hours later, they were announcing the winners, and everybody was packed in the auditorium. T.L. and George were sitting next to one another. T.L herself competed in the math contest, without winning anything. But when her friend – our friend – George won 8th place, she applauded vigorously and even gave him a quick hug. While I awaited my name to be called, I couldn't help but notice the way they were talking and laughing. To no one's surprise, I won first prize, but as I went forward to accept the ribbon, I noticed that T.L. and George were no longer paying attention. While my brain had been obsessing over quadratic equations and isosceles triangles, they were enjoying the fact they weren't in class. This award, (I realized), didn't matter.

But I grew up and continued academic pursuits and even other romantic possibilities. Recently though, I have started to comprehend this girl's influence on me. I lost the love letter long ago, but I can still see the lovely loopy letters and that first line, "I love you very much and want to marry you." That was an amazing bit of candor for a 4th or 5th grader, and it made me see that hearts sometimes sing in unison, although all songs come eventually to an end. I honestly don't remember how I treated her the year after the letter. Maybe my silence about the letter offended her or hurt her feelings. Of course I meant no such thing; it was and still is one of my most precious memories.

Over the next few decades I wrote a fair number of love letters, and to be honest, most came to no avail. Here, I suppose, is my chance to talk about heartbreak or the follies of the heart or the ways that hope collides clumsily with reality. The memory of this 4th grader's note (with its loopy penciled handwriting) papers over the heart's disappointments, providing consolation and even hope.

It sounds silly to feel sentimental about a childhood crush, but sometimes my mind wanders to thoughts of where she is. Perhaps she's living a lurid life as a porn star, but no, that is ridiculous. She is somewhere married with children and living an ordinary life. Maybe she's an accountant or lawyer, but I could just as easily see her as a secretary or teacher or social worker. Even at the age of 40, she must still be pleasant company and of course a delight to behold.

Every year or so I play with the idea of looking her up, typing her unmarried name into search engines and telephone directories. Her name wasn't unusual, but remarkably it never shows up in search results, as though she were some fantasy person I had just dreamt up.

Whenever I return to this imaginary exercise, I contemplate a game plan. I went to a private high school, so I lost touch with people who attended the public high school. But I managed to track George down on the Internet; apparently, he won a state tennis championship in high school and played competitively at college. It would be fun to catch up with him, though weird.

But did George keep in touch with T.L. during high school? The school district had two high schools and three sections (consisting of 700-800 students) in each school. These schools were huge. George's friendship with T.L. might have ended when they reached high school. They probably went to different colleges and lost touch (unless they married!) Actually, two other acquaintances of mine went to that public high school (though in different sections and different years). They could conceivably help me to get in touch with someone who knew her.

Occasionally I come close to following those leads, but the quest seems so weird and hopeless that I end up losing confidence. Even if by some miracle I located her, what would I say? What would she think? As an adult I could be honest in ways that I could never do as a child (I wouldn't even mind showing her this story). I even have enough detachment from those feelings and memories to make it fun. But women are prone to mistrust men who mysteriously reappear out of nowhere. Besides, unless she were a divorcee, chances are she was happily married and busy raising children. She would probably have no place (or patience) for a childhood crush who wanted to exchange memories (however innocent my motives were).

Reluctantly, the realist takes over and convinces myself to abandon the endeavor. To obsess about a childhood sweetheart must be a sign of neuroticism, yes, even delusional thinking. If I still wanted to find her, I would be doing it for selfish motives (however I convinced myself to the contrary). And each time the realist decides once again to abandon the quest, I feel the familiar chill of having abandoned a dream, the familiar ache of never having the opportunity to give one more gentle word or caress. All that stays with me is that moment in the dark, the smile, the hand-holding, the long steady gaze.

Written, November, 2004

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Hearts sometimes sing in unison, although all songs come eventually to an end.
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