I was in Grade 10. It was a day like any other when Mrs. Jolly came to stand in the front of our class with the new kid.
Up until that moment, I had never noticed boys, at least not in the way all my friends did. To me boys were smelly, foul-mouthed irritations, yet he was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
Our skinny teacher introduced him. Her shrill little voice echoing across the classroom, “boys and girls, this is Bruce Stein, our a new pupil, fresh from the Cape.”
The class greeted him in their sing-song way kids in school always do, “h-e-l-l-o Brruuucce.”
He was promptly shown to a free desk on the far side and told that his textbooks would be ready by the next day for collection. As he made his way to his seat our eyes met and he smiled. An explosion of heat rose up my neck and colored my cheeks a bright shy red.
He stood a head above all the other boys, with dusty blonde hair and big caramel eyes. For a boy who was great at everything from school work, to cricket, to swimming, and making most of the girl’s legs turn to jelly, he was rather humble. A boy so unlike the others of his kind, who always strutted around with puffing chests and a thing to prove.
The ruling bucks in our grade soon realized that it was in their best interest to befriend the new guy, instead of exercising his rite of passage through hazing. A pleasure most new kids would suffer.
I knew it was more than just his sturdy form and broad shoulders that intimidated them. He owned a silent presence which spoke volumes. Grown and wiser, I now realize it was a mark of leadership.
Unlike other boys, he had no need to fight and stomp his way to the top of the food chain. Although if need be, I was sure he would win any scrap. He would just stand and watch in silence, his stoic presence drawing the wild ruffians closer until they all orbited him like the moons of Jupiter.
There is a hierarchy in school — we all know and understand this from an early age. The diva clique with their shallow souls and snide comments balanced precariously on the top. The left overs sprinkled along the tiers below according to their looks, clothes and personality deficits, till one came to the bottom – the nerds – me and other losers.
If you’re lucky, you’re left to your own devices and make a good friend or two. If not – you will be shunned, picked on and relegated as a bottom feeder. If you have more than two brain cells, you make sure to befriend the mirror lovers. Whether it’s by doing their homework or with continual praise of their plastic beauty, this will earn you their grace and shelter you from the worst of the bullying. I didn’t much mind the extra homework, that and the fact that Shelly Parker – Queen Bee, who lived just down my street, rode to school and back with us each day.
Maths was my other enemy. Numbers teased and mocked my simple gray matter. I was deep in thought, failing to grasp the solution to the figures scribbled on Mrs. Ryan’s blackboard when a strange sensation ran up my neck. That funny tingling feeling one gets when you’re being watched. I looked to the side and was stunned to see Bruce looking straight at me! He smiled and moved his fingers in a small wave. I looked behind me, making sure it was me he really was waving to.
He was! Again, I blushed. Not a sprinkling of rose across the cheeks, but a full on lobster red rash. His smile grew into a flamboyant grin, which reached his eyes bringing it’s caramel hue to a swirling honied glow. He stood up and asked Jessica Smythe, who sat at the desk beside me, if she wouldn’t mind swapping. And so grade nine’s popular guy came to sit at the table beside me. Jessica almost fell flat on her face obliging him. Braces glinting merrily from the broadest smile I had ever seen on her pimply face.
“Hi.” His newly-broken voice, smooth and deep greeted me.
“H-Hi,” I replied.
“I was wondering,” he said, motioning to his book as he spoke, “do you think you’d be able to help me with my math? I am not very good with numbers.”
My heart sunk and flew at the same time.
He wanted my help — mine! The quiet, mousy girl no-one ever saw. Then I remembered that I sucked at math. Looking down at my fumbling hands on the scribbled white page I said, “I don’t think I can.”
“Why?” he asked.
I turned now and looked straight in those big beautiful eyes. “Because, I suck at math. If it were any other subject…”
He laughed softly and my body stiffened waiting for him to call me a retard. Instead, he gently touched my hand with his larger one. Pure white lightning ran up my arms and hit me in my solar plexus.
“No. Please, I am not laughing at you. It’s just, I don’t care, help me with any other subject then, please. I am sure I need help there too.”
Was he playing me? Apparently, the question was written across my forehead.
“I am not setting you up. But you seem to be the nicest, funniest girl here. And… Well, I just thought we could get to know one another.”
With genuine sincerity painted on his face, I no longer doubted my new friend’s intentions.
“I thought maybe next Saturday your mom could drop you off at my house. We live on a farm not too far out of town. My folks would be there so we won’t be alone. Also, we have a new pony and I’d love to show her to you.”
This was the most I had ever heard him speak and it was all being said to Me. My eyes quickly ran over the class and I couldn’t help but puff my chest as I took in the jealous shocked gasps of all the kids. I nodded, smiling bright and no longer blushing.
We had many wonderful times together as innocent children and eventually as the years crept along and we grew, so too did our friendship as it evolved and matured. But like most, we eventually moved on and walked our separate paths.
That was over twenty-five years ago… I wish such a gentle soul was the first crush of every girl. He unknowingly laid a standard down, to which I would measure the strengths, weaknesses, and personality of the man I would one day choose.
I can only hope I lived up to his.