In Second Grade I had two boys who liked me more than a little. I was flattered and very much enjoyed their extra attention. Otherwise, I had no idea what to do about this happy turn except to smile at them. That seemed to be quite enough – at least in the beginning – but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I had known Steve for a while. He was the son of our family physician. Sometimes we played together at his grandfather’s house if my mama or brother had a doctor’s appointment. I also knew many of his extended family members – aunts, uncles, and cousins. Additionally, Steve and I had been Senior Class mascots a couple of years prior to starting public school and had been thrown together on various occasions regarding that event. Steve was always well groomed, well dressed, and well mannered – a perfect gentleman, my mother said.
And then there was Earl. I had never seen or heard of Earl before entering Second Grade. Earl was a little rough around the edges but sincerely sweet. He was an athletic and scrappy boy. Despite his rowdiness on the playground and frequently scraped skin he had a softer side. He liked to sing to me, which made me blush but I had to appreciate his earnest effort.
In the beginning, Steve didn’t know that Earl liked me and Earl didn’t know that Steve liked me. It was as if neither boy was aware of the other’s existence. Not knowing a thing about love – family relationships aside – and certainly nothing about love triangles, it never occurred to me that this knowledge could be a problem. Everything was stars and hearts and flowers as far as I was concerned. Steve was the one that changed the playing field.
At recess we all played outside under the shade of a huge old oak tree if the weather was nice. The ground was sandy and just right for drawing pictures or Hop Scotch patterns or making a circle for Dodge Ball. There was also jump rope and tag. Sometimes we just raced from the side of the building down to a chain link fence to see who was the winner. One day Steve suggested to a small group of us that the boys chase the girls to the fence. If a girl were caught, she would have to give that boy a kiss. I’m sure our teacher, Mrs. Rogers, was completely unaware of this game because I am very sure she would have nixed it had she known. I guess it just looked like a game of racing or tag to her. The girls that played giggled about it. I felt both delighted and terrified. And no matter how much I liked the fact that a boy was paying extra special attention to me there was no way I was going to let that boy kiss me. No, sir! Somehow my mother had infused me with Southern Belle rules early on and I knew innately that kissing a boy in public was a big “NO-NO”. So let the games begin! Yes, indeed. I ran like the wind – every single time. Not one of those Second Grade boys ever caught me – including Steve or Earl. What did happen was that Steve realized that he and Earl were both chasing the same girl. Earl also came to the same conclusion about the same time. And that’s when the problem started.
The extra attention I received escalated from each boy. Previously when Steve paid attention to me Earl was usually occupied elsewhere. And when Earl paid attention to me Steve was busy doing something else. But now their eyes had been opened and a competition began. Steve began to bring me presents – sometimes a flower or maybe an apple. So Earl brought me presents, too – a pebble he’d picked up or a cookie from his lunch. (Mama said to say “no thank you” as politely as possible to the cookie because Earl needed to eat the lunch his mama had packed for him.) Steve also brought me a Nurse doll for Christmas, a box of candy for Valentine’s Day, and hearts cut out of construction paper just because. Earl gave me a magnet that didn’t work, a broken watch, and scraps of paper with squiggly hearts drawn in pencil on them. I treasured these gifts all the same. But that didn’t slow or stop the competition. Mama cautioned me to “be nice” and not to hurt their feelings. I figured I could do that easy enough but after a while it got harder as the competition grew.
One day Steve and Earl sat directly in front of and facing me and surprised me by asking whom I wanted to marry. Lordamercy! I was stunned. Certainly I had never given this a moment’s thought. Yet there they sat, each boy looking at me very sweetly and expectantly. Not having considered marriage at this point in my little life I was at a loss for words. I knew that they were each considering themselves as possibilities and were waiting for me to end the competition then and there. Finally I hit upon a response that I thought would avert further competition when I stated what was my typical response to grown ups when they queried “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My mantra in those days was, “I’m going to be a nurse when I grow up.” And so that is exactly what I said to the both of them.
Steve and Earl stopped gazing at me. They turned toward each other and glared. I felt pretty proud of myself – happy with my reply, which had postponed decision-making on my part and had averted a possible squabble between the two boys. But Steve wasn’t giving up. He turned to me, smiled smugly, and with his chin high he turned back to Earl and said with a slight air of arrogance, “Well, I’m going to be a doctor.” Steve turned back to me looking quite as if he might have won the prize. But Earl was clever and not about to be out done. He glared at Steve for only a moment before looking at me dreamily and replying, “Well, I’m going to be sick.”
Sigh…….Boys! I sure had a lot to learn…..