On a warm autumn day in 1983, I was running around playing with my fellow second grade classmates during recess at my Roman Catholic elementary school. The light jacket that I wore to school in the morning was tied around my waist while I dodged would-be grabbers and ran toward the end zone during a game of tag football. The recess bell soon rang to end our outside time, and all of the students lined up so the parent playground volunteers could steer us back inside the school like a herd of cattle coming back in from the fields. While I stood in line awaiting my turn to start heading back up the hill to school, a girl in my class grabbed my hand. Her name was Sheila, and as we begun our journey back to school, she turned to me and declared that I was now her boyfriend.
Being an eight year-old at the time, I didn’t quite know what being a boyfriend meant, but what I did know was this was my very first girl friend outside of my neighborhood block. Sheila never spoke more than ten words to me in kindergarten and first grade, so it was quite a surprise that she thought highly of me. We exchanged phone numbers at the end of the day and I resumed my usual routine with my friends as we walked back home.
For the next two weeks, Sheila and I talked on the phone, held hands at school and even sat next to each other in church. My parents were amused at our arrangement and they kept our time on the phone to a minimum. I was fine with how things were going between Sheila and I, but about two weeks in, I knew my life was going in the wrong direction.
My grades started to suffer. I started alienating my friends. I didn’t want to talk on the phone as long as I did in those first few days. The delicate balance of my second grade life was abruptly knocked into disarray and I knew if I didn’t end the relationship soon, things would continuously get worse. Appropriately, the big “break-up” came at a very grown up place: The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.
PROBLEMS AT HOGWARTS
Before Harry Potter came into existence, The Cathedral of Learning was Hogwarts. The interior looks like the movies could have been filmed there. My second grade class was there on a field trip to tour the international rooms that are still in the building to this day.
As my class weaved our way through the various ethnic-themed classrooms, Sheila and I held hands the entire time and sat next to each other…while holding hands. After about an hour of this, the boys in our class started to give me a hard time over our behavior while the girls gave Sheila similar treatment. Eventually, I saw how much fun the boys were having without me, so I broke away from Sheila, telling her that I didn’t want to be her boyfriend anymore. She became mad at me, and barely spoke to me the rest of our second grade year together.
Third grade came along, and Sheila barely spoke to me. Fourth grade arrived, and any type of interaction between us was brief and often forced upon us due to the arrival of more group projects. The awkward few weeks we had together in 1983 was fading out of my memory, and just as I was about to accept that Sheila would never be my friend again, something unexpectedly happened.
THE COUPLES SKATE
Toward the end of my fourth grade year, my class along with the third grade class took a field trip together. I cannot remember where we went for the first half of the day, but I do remember where we went after lunch. The old Bethel Roller Rink in Bethel Park was closing their doors for good in the near future, and my teacher wanted us to experience the place before it went away. I never roller skated before, so I was curious how I would fare compared to my classmates who had skated prior to our visit.
I kept my balance well, and only pushed off on my right skate for speed. I probably looked ridiculous, but I was able to turn and keep a respectable pace around the floor. Other kids noticed I was doing better than most of the beginners, including Sheila. Toward the end of the session, the music slowed, and it was announced that the last two skates were going to be “couples skates” only.
As I pushed off on my right skate to exit the floor, I was suddenly grabbed by Sheila. She wanted me to be her partner for the couples skate. Stunned, I agreed, and she dragged me around the rink with her effortless form, holding my hand as I pushed off on my right skate to keep up with her. When I held her hand that day, it didn’t feel burdensome. I felt comfortable, and it was the first time I experienced a loving, genuine moment with a girl. We skated those two songs while many of my friends watched from the benches, and afterwards I voluntarily sat next to her on the bus on the way back to school.
When we got back to school, Sheila and I said our goodbyes to each other, and went our separate ways. Things between us suddenly returned to normal. We didn’t talk to each other every day at school and we did not talk to each other outside of school. What did change was our comfort level with each other. We couldn’t comprehend our connection to each other at such a young age, but we both knew we had one when we were together.
THE FINAL MOMENTS OF US
Fifth, sixth and seventh grade carried on just as third and fourth grade did. We spoke to each other, but we really didn’t get together outside of school. We got along fine during those years, but Sheila stayed with her girl friends and I hung out with my boy friends. When seventh grade came to an end, our relationship with each other was predictable and very distant.
Summer came along, and our annual church festival was just up the street from Sheila’s house. I was working there as a stock boy moving prizes from a house we were using as storage to the vendor booths. Since I was there every day of the festival, I spent time with Sheila four consecutive evenings. I was not supposed to play games, but I played games to win stuffed animals for Sheila. I was not supposed to get on the rides, but I remember riding the Ferris wheel with Sheila. We were a couple again–a little older and a little more aware of what type of relationship we were portraying to our friends and family.
We talked on the phone for a few weeks after the festival, saw each other one day with a group of friends, and then, nothing. We went back to our former ways of just seeing each other in school while passing through the hallways. We never expressed any negative words to each other, we just both decided to spend our time with other people.
In eighth grade, I chased other girls around…poorly. We went to high school together, but Sheila joined a cult, otherwise known as band. The band had class together, ate together, practiced together and traveled together. In four years of high school, I probably spoke to Sheila ten times. We were going in different directions since grade school, and we never spoke to each other after the age of eighteen.
REMEMBERING AND RECONNECTING
Today, I do not have many friends. There are many reasons and excuses I can give for this outcome, but at age 42, I have bigger life concerns involving family and work that take precedence over gaining new friendships and mending old ones. I miss my good friends, and when I do see them, I cherish the time we have together. I might not see them for years, but I want them to know that they were an important part of my early life, and I still want them to be a part of my life despite our ever-growing distractions of adulthood.
Sheila taught me early on that people can be friends despite years of separation. We sat next to each other in class for years, but we were miles apart. In the twelve years that I knew Shelia, we rarely spoke to one another. But for about one month and one day in that time frame, I was her boyfriend and she was my girlfriend, even if we didn’t know what that really meant.