Once I started school, I found another avenue for the restless energy that rattled beneath the monotony of life in rural Georgia. School felt like a respite from the usual even if it too had its own repetitive rhythms. There, in the tiny classrooms that looked like a relic from the 1950s, I met many of the other kids with whom I would grow into young adults and found new sources of inspiration from the many gracious teachers who passed through my life, two of whom would go onto become some of the biggest influences in my life outside of my parents.
Meanwhile, there remained much to learn, not just the usual subjects like math and science, but relationships. We were all mostly the same, white kids from working class families of various sizes. There were a few who probably identified with upper middle class ideals, but the rest of us were clearly rural working class. The echo chamber was alive and well back then. Most of us would not appreciate or understand the value of different perspectives or the wonderful variety of cultures in the world until we were well into adulthood.
I was not a particularly noteworthy student in those first few years. I struggled early on beyond writing my ABCs neatly and coloring between the lines. I distinctly remember having difficulty reading at a young age. Some words just flustered me, and it didn’t help that my mom struggled in a similar fashion as she worked with me before I attended school. It took a few years for me to become a curious and voracious reader.
It’s ironic today that I had such a hard time as much as I love to read now. I devour books like a kid raffling through his candy bag on Halloween night, but it wasn’t always something I loved to do. I avoided reading early on because it was difficult, but I gradually improved until it became less of a chore for me. I credit author Richard Adams for bringing the wonderful world of reading alive for me. His iconic Watership Down remains the only book I’ve ever read twice. I fell in love with that book. It turned me into a life-long reader, and I never looked back.
From that first grade class of 30 or so kids, I met people with whom I have been friends for a large portion of my life. We mostly stayed together over those eight years of elementary school (middle school wasn’t around then). A few came and went over the years, but that class remained largely familiar like a second family, and like most families, some of us weren’t too fond of each other, but we coexisted because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.
One of the girls who transitioned into and out of my class over a few years became the object of my first crush in the third grade. I remember it so well because it was far enough removed from the hormonal onslaught of the teenage years to be sappy sweet and innocent. I just liked her, nothing more, a pleasant desire to dote that I really couldn’t explain. Mary (not her real name) had light brown hair that she often wore in a ponytail and a beautiful smile that seemed to light up the room. She could play soccer better than anyone in our class, including the boys, which at the time, was an enthralling attribute. I mostly admired her from afar, not sure what to do with my newfound feelings for the pretty girl with the sweet smile and dimples.
That crush lingered for a bit, but it faded into the background as I entered that phase where boys and girls tend to not like each other, the precursor before things turned serious somewhere around the beginning of the teenage years, specifically seventh and eight grades. It was during those years that I had my second big crush on a girl named Leah (again, not her real name), and like third grade, I didn’t have a clue how to deal with it, so I spent the remainder of my time in elementary school and almost all of my high school years fumbling around her and staying close but pretty much leaving that stone untouched.
No one taught you about relationships back then. The only sex education you received likely revolved around the familiar hell and damnation theme, a common thing in the rural South. My mom seemed to read from a script ripped from the pages of a bad Lifetime movie back before that trite, fear-mongering TV channel even existed. My dad had exactly one conversation with me about sex and it happened only because he found me reading the human anatomy section in an encyclopedia. Everything else I learned from older kids or my own misconstrued and often hilariously off-base assumptions about the opposite sex, so it’s no surprise that my own bumbling reactions to having feelings for someone largely failed to engender anything resembling even a schoolhouse relationship.
Nevertheless, I look back on those first crushes with a sense of sentimentality, not because they led to anything noteworthy, but because they captured the essence of my youth, that fleeting innocence that I didn’t realize I had until it was gone.