First Kiss

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a woman would create my first moral quandary.

It was near the end of my eighth grade year when plans for a class trip to Disneyland began.  I was caught off guard when, Carmela, the girl I liked best in the class, suddenly asked me if I was going to take a “date” to the Magic Kingdom.  I had missed the memo that “dating” was now a thing, that having a girlfriend had changed from being repulsive (or at least something you kept a secret) to being desirable.  So, I answered “No,” disdainfully and with conviction.

Carmela didn’t take it personally, although in the moment she seemed disappointed in my answer, and she quickly set her sights on my soon-to-be-ex-best-friend, Mike.  Suddenly, it was clear that the boys and girls were pairing up and I was behind the curve.  Carmela was looking out for me though and let me know that Suzanne, a perfectly suitable replacement, was hoping I would ask her.  I did so, and secured my very first date.

I mean, what was not to like about Suzanne–long dark hair, turned-up nose, and somehow she managed to show off a lot of leg when sitting in class despite the lengthy, Catholic-school uniform skirt.  I didn’t know what lust was yet, but I was interested in finding out.

Some time before the trip, the girls formed a conspiracy.  They each tied a piece of string around their wrists, a string with three knots in it.  The boys were told, if you were to break your girl’s string, you would owe her a kiss.

I broke Suzanne’s string some time before Disneyland and there seemed to be an understanding that the big moment would come some time shortly after.  I agonized about it for days.  It wasn’t that I was against kissing.  I also wasn’t particularly interested in it yet, but I had no moral objections.  The problem was that I knew that Suzanne’s mom did not want her kissing anyone.  I could not have known this if Suzanne hadn’t told me.  Why she chose to torture me with this information, I have never understood.  It was clear that she had every intention of getting herself kissed, but I was an altar boy and a rule-follower.  Wouldn’t kissing her, in light of her mother’s objection be a conscious transgression?

I was sure I was in a potential sin situation and decided to consult an expert.  The easiest way to talk with a priest was to go to confession, so the following Wednesday I rode my bike down to the church.  I entered the dark confessional and went through whatever sins I could think of and then interrupted the ritual to ask if I could meet with up with him after his sin-hearing session was over.  The deep, disembodied voice told me where to wait.

I can’t remember his name and I wish that I could.  He was tall and powerfully built and his head was shaven.  I remember that he drove an expensive car and that parishioners sometimes whispered about a priest driving a nicer car than most in the parish.

I was nervous as he walked toward me near an entrance to the church, and we began a stroll around the church grounds.  To a boy of my age the aura of a priest was still magical.  They spoke with God.  They touched God.  Their word was the word of God.  I felt awed by his personal attention.

Luckily, he was kind and patient, and I told him of the conspiracy of the strings.  With a serious look on his face he asked, “And just how many of these strings have you broken?”

Mortified, I quickly assured him that I had broken only one.  Even at that age I knew better than to over-extend myself.  We walked and talked in the cool of the early evening, the priest with his hands clasped behind him and me with my hands jammed into my pockets. I can’t remember anything specific that he gave me in the way of guidance, but somehow he managed to reassure me that my intentions were pure and that a kiss wasn’t going to derail me into hell.

The Disneyland trip finally came and Suzanne and I spent the day holding hands as we went from ride to ride feeling very adult.  We ate lunch, bought gifts for our parents, and thoroughly enjoyed our day away from school.  However, the thought of kissing her later that night lurked in the back of my mind constantly.  After all, I had never done it before.  So many things could go wrong, I thought.

The bus dropped us off at the school at the end of the day and we walked from there to her house.  We turned into her tree-lined street just as it was getting dark.  I glanced toward the front of the house to make sure that her mom wasn’t peeking through the drapes or lurking on the front porch.  I tried to remain nonchalant and managed to escort her to the porch without tripping.  In those few seconds as we exchanged goodbyes important questions raced through my mind:  Would our noses get in the way?  Was it important to close my eyes?   Should I worry about mono?

Suddenly we weren’t talking anymore and I realized it was time.  In that moment I had my first experience with what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” I leaned forward and kissed her quickly but fervently on the lips.

She seemed pleased, and I was greatly relieved.  We repeated polite goodbyes, and I began walking down the quiet sidewalk alone.

I was about three houses away when I heard my name being called, and I turned to see Suzanne walking quickly toward me. I stood in surprise as she approached me, and clearly overcome by passion, she pulled me toward her and gave me a second, lingering kiss on the cheek.  Without a word, she turned and retreated to her house.

I stood there for a long minute mystified. I’ve gotten used to associating that feeling with the behavior of women, but at the time it was new to me.  Everything was new to me.

But what filled my eighth-grade heart that night, the sensation that began on that night and which I still both crave and am surprised at every time I experience it, was feeling of being drenched by the emotion of having been chosen.  Her simple, spontaneous, and unexpected act of affection overwhelmed me.  It said, “I choose you” or “you are special to me” or “I like you better than some of the others” or something like that.

At least, standing under that street light that night, that’s what I thought it said.  And I had never felt that before.  And to this day, I think it is maybe just the best feeling ever.

 

If you enjoy stories of me being a fool for love, you might also enjoy Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time and Thank You, Paul McCartney.

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“I Am The Eggman”

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When asked what led me into teaching high-school English as a career, I have several ready answers–I wanted to dedicate myself to helping young people; I loved reading and writing and was happy that I could make a career out of it; I liked the idea of having summers off—the usual.  And while all of those things were true, I always left out one key factor because I didn’t want to admit it.  I wanted to go back to high school.  I wanted to go back to high school to see if I could achieve a level of “coolness” that had always eluded me as a student.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

There were two teachers that most influenced my thinking about this because they provided models for how someone could be well liked and also be a powerful teacher.

Vic Player, geography teacher at Saint Augustine High School, was a man with a bold and playful sense of humor.  I was a painfully shy freshman who just wanted hide behind a large person in class and go unnoticed.  As he was taking roll one day early in the semester, he called out “Waldron?  Waldron?  You mean like walrus?  You are the eggman, you are the walrus?”  I sat in silent horror as I raised my hand to acknowledge my presence and my new connection to the popular Beatles’ song of the time.  “Yeah, Waldron,” he said smiling, “from now on, you are the Eggman.”

And from then on, I was the Eggman.  All of a sudden, I had an identity in the class.  I was someone, and I could no longer hide, no longer wanted to hide.  This man, with one silly nickname, transformed my first year experience in high school by giving me an identity that I could never have carved out for myself.  He refused to call me by any other name from that point on, and I marveled as I watched his easy confidence in the classroom, how he teased, and taught, and cajoled, and nurtured his ninth grade class.  He was by far, the coolest person in the room.  I wanted to be like that.

Three years later I faced the terrors inflicted by John Bowman, my senior English teacher.  The year before I had been in a class next door to his, and we frequently heard pounding, yelling, and then laughter coming from the class.  We were terrified.  All we could imagine was that someone in his class had said something stupid and had been thrown up against the wall, maybe pinned to a cork-board like an impaled butterfly, to be ridiculed by the entire class.  We entered his room, already cowed by the legend and his fierce reputation, the knowledge that he did not suffer fools, and that he did not spare criticism.

To our relief, we quickly discovered that the pounding came from Mr. Bowman slamming his hand on his desk for emphasis, as frequently in praise for a good comment as in disgust for one that didn’t please him.  Our written work was treated with contempt for most of the first quarter, but we quickly learned how to write and how to please the great man.  There was no better day, no greater compliment, than the moment when he called on me and I ventured an answer to a question and he slammed his hand on his desk with satisfaction.  “Mr. Waldron!” he shouted. “Say that again!”

It took most of the year to figure out how much he loved his class.  We knew he loved literature.  His passion swept us away—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Hemingway—all of them were heroes, giants.  However, he was a consummate actor and hid his affection for us as long as he could.  By the end of the year, when he handed out his own home-made awards for excellence, we were allies with him in his secret.   The incoming juniors would never know.  But I knew.  And I wanted to be like that.

As it turned out, I could never “be” either one of those two exemplary teachers.  However, I learned some of my key values from them—passion, humor, a dedication to excellence, and a commitment to making every student feel included, honored, respected.

If students remember anything from my classroom it will be the fact that for the last 15 years or so, I greeted every student, every day, with a handshake.  It provided a short, personal moment of acknowledgement for every one of my kids.  It became so ingrained as a classroom ritual that if I forgot and started class without having made the rounds, students would cry out in protest. One student described it this way in an end-of-the-year note to me: “Taking those few minutes out of your day to talk to each student, really made a difference especially during a time where every teenager is struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in.  It was nice to know that at least one teacher cared enough to take those few seconds out of their day to treat each student like a real person, not just another face in the crowd.”

So, did my 36 year-high-school do-over achieve its purpose of giving me a status I couldn’t quite grasp the first time around?  Not exactly.  While I gained a certain amount of notoriety for my classroom traditions such as the handshake, loud music to begin each day, Barry White Fridays, movie nights, and the year-end scrapbook, I pretty quickly realized that I was there to make my kids feel special as they tried to survive high school; to make them feel accepted, and cool, and as if they were in a place where they belonged.  It was when I had a really good day in helping a student, that the Eggman felt cool once again.

 

 

Thank You, Paul McCartney

Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man

Who’s in the middle of something

That he doesn’t really understand…

I have to admit, despite my eventual qualms about all things Catholic, it was a good decision for me to attend Saint Augustine High School, an all boy’s Catholic school in San Diego.  All freshman had to endure a period of hazing, which included wearing a beanie with the purple and gold school colors for the first six weeks, and being taunted and ordered about by upper classmen, but it was tolerable, and a part of a fierce sense of school spirit, loyalty, and tradition.  The entire school could fit inside the gym.  We did so every Friday during football season, and I can still feel the sense of anticipation as we waited for the band to begin blaring out “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the football team marched in and began a loud and raucous pep rally.  I had excellent teachers for the most part and was proud to be a Saintsman.

Meeting girls, though, was a different story.  Our school took turns hosting dances with the local Catholic girls’ schools, but I found them uncomfortable and awkward, full of a multitude of opportunities for rejection and only slim hopes for satisfaction.  I did managed to go on a couple of dates in my first two years, mostly with girls who were as scared and awkward as I was, but still found them to be mysterious and confusing.

Then one day, I hit the jackpot.  My friend, Pat, a drama kid, came to me and begged me to join the musical production of “The King and I” at Rosary High School, the nearby girls’ school.  “You don’t have to be able to act OR sing,” he reassured me, “they just need guys.  Anyone can do it.”

So, I joined the production for the simple reason that I knew that the girls would vastly outnumber the boys, and I still had hopes as a junior that I could salvage at least some valuable and maybe even memorable social experience before I graduated.

It was my first exposure to drama and in my 16-year-old-eyes, we slowly mounted a magnificent production on the tiny high school stage. The only musical accompaniment was a single piano played by the enthusiastic and dictatorial nun who was also the play’s director.  I had seven different parts in the play, all of them non-speaking.  Nightly, I had to smear my body with a base make-up to make my pasty skin look bronzed and I spent every performance racing from costume change to costume change, just trying to be in the right place in the right time.

Having never been in a drama production of this magnitude or of any magnitude, I was a little overwhelmed by the emotion of closing night.  Even before the final curtain call, there was a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing going on and I was intent on being involved in as much of it as I could be.  In the midst of this vortex of emotion, one of my friends nudged me over towards Dolores, a lithe, beautiful Pilipino girl who seemed intent on passionately kissing every boy she could get her hands on.

I should mention here that I did not then, and even sometimes do not now, have a clear understanding of the appeal of French kissing.  My only introduction up to that point had been my older sister and her boyfriend showing off in front of my younger sister and I who both agreed the behavior was completely disgusting.  My older sister sneered at us.  “You’re too young to understand,” she sniffed.  Whatever.

But when suddenly I found myself in Dolores’s arms, she was kissing me with her mouth wide open, something that immediately made me feel I had become connected to a lovely but out of control vacuum cleaner.  She seemed to be waiting for me to do something, but I had no idea what it was.  I was just sure I wanted to kiss this way as long as she would let me, hoping maybe I would figure it out.  We broke the kiss and I stumbled away with a sense of wonder, loss, and determination.  I had to have a second chance.

The chance came a week later.  My school had a junior-senior prom coming up and so I had been casting about in my mind for who to ask.  After that night, my sights were set firmly on Dolores.  She had no good reason to go with me except that we knew each other from the play and as a sophomore girl she had never been to a prom.  It was just enough for her to say yes.

Proms are supposed to be about flowers, tuxedos, music and pictures, but in my mind, the dinner, the dance, and the after-prom were simply 10 hours of foreplay leading up for a chance to kiss her goodnight. Through the first part of the evening, she was a delightful date.  I still remember the aqua-colored dress and her long, lustrous hair done up beautifully to frame her delicate face. I, at times, could not believe that I was there with a date as lovely as she.

Things took a turn for the worse at the after-prom.  Suddenly Dolores disappeared and from the reports I was getting from my friends, she was chasing after Rocky, our star wrestler, a friend of mine, while I sat disconsolately by a pool table in the bowling alley.  After a miserable hour or so, she re-appeared, looking bored, and finally, it was time to take her home.

I walked her up to her front porch feeling a little sulky.  After all, she had bruised up my ego pretty well.  Of course, I had asked her for the shallowest of reasons but still, was one night of pretend loyalty too much to ask?  My feelings weren’t hurt so badly that I didn’t feel a rush of anticipation as we approached her front door.  She turned and smiled and thanked me, and the smile was enough to melt any resentment I had felt as she drew me toward her and once again kissed me deeply and passionately and for the last time.  Somehow during that kiss, that I hoped would last forever, she taught me what I was supposed to do.

I drove home in a daze and I can still hear Paul McCartney singing, “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the radio, which seemed perfect at that moment.  The sun was coming up, and I was immersed in the wonder and mystery of love and lust, hope and loss.  I had a feeling the world had just grown for me a little bit.

Thanks, Paul, for crystallizing that experience for me, freezing the moment in a way that only a song can do.

Baby, I’m a man,

And maybe you’re the only woman who could ever help me.

Baby, won’t you help me to understand?