I don’t know if seventh grade relationships have changed much since I was in middle school in the 1980s. But back then, as we maneuvered around those awkward years of development and floated from group to group looking for our own pack and tried out sports and clubs and navigated changing classes and took foreign language classes and experimented with drama or chorus or band electives, we also started taking notice of the opposite sex. There were dances where we desperately wanted to be noticed nearly as much as we desperately wanted to not be noticed. A slow dance was awkward and jumbled and the two feet of air between you and your partner was charged with the anticipation of this grown-up thing you were doing and you couldn’t wait to get back to your group of girlfriends and discuss every minute detail. “Going together” meant not actually going anywhere together, unless you counted walking from homeroom to the cafeteria at lunch or perhaps a group mall trip with friends where you’d cruise the food court and all the guys ended up in the arcade with the girls giggling and watching, maybe going with a safe game like Pacman or an attempt at the claw game. Holding hands was the extent of most relationships with kissing being the goal but no one quite sure how to get there, especially when so much of your relationship was conducted in the corridors of your middle school. I tended to be the follower girl. The one who would start going with the best friend of the guy my best friend was going with. She was the more confident one getting the more confident guy. Their respective wingmen often getting paired up simply because we’d all be sitting at the same cafeteria table anyway.
Until the time I went out on my own.
I grew up in the south. My parents grew up in Massachusetts. They relocated to North Carolina when I was five. The entirety of my schooling took place in the unairconditioned hallways of the Durham County School system. The apartment complex we moved into when we first arrived, and was home until I was in the fourth grade, was my introduction to my new city. The small Massachusetts town we came from was old and historic with large lots of fields and colonial homes and town ponds and quiet streets and a public library building that had a turret. Our neighbors were reached by cutting through hedges and going outside to play meant squishing caterpillars, chasing bunnies away from the strawberry plants and picking blueberries at the edge of the woods.
Durham was busy and vast and exciting. Our neighbors were a mix of white, hispanic and black families. There were Catholics and Jews and Mormons and Baptists. There were families with two and three and four kids. Our row was full of families – big families, half-families that were going through the painful process of divorce, and everything in between – and we spent our days running in and out of their apartments like they were simply separate wings of our bigger home. Going outside to play meant throwing a tennis ball off the cement wall in the unused tennis courts, spinning endlessly on the merry-go-round until we were sick to our stomachs and our hands burned with blisters from holding on so tightly and our palms smelled of tangy metal, swimming in the pool in the summer. Our school was a mix, too. Back then it was mostly white and African American families. Our school was representative of our community and I loved it. I never saw color because I was surrounded by it. Teachers, administrators, neighbors, classmates. We were all in it together. I’m sure it wasn’t as simple as all that, but for a kid growing up, it was the equal footing school provided that taught me people are people and we are all on this road of growing up together.
Enter middle school. I sat next to a boy in science class. He was funny and smart and smelled nice (a rare treat in boys that age) and was nice to me. And he was black. I am not. We started “going together.” I was nervous and excited and he wasn’t the best friend of the boy my best friend was going with. This was me. I liked a boy. He liked me. Seemed simple.
Until it wasn’t.
I started to see a part of my hometown I’d never seen before. Classmates – black and white – started saying nasty things about me, near me, to me. The boy’s mother didn’t approve of this budding “relationship,” if you could even call it that. We weren’t allowed to speak on the phone much. We passed notes in class. We held hands. And his hand was so soft and warm and lovely. I craved it, placing my palm flat on the work table in the science room where we sat, hoping he’d place his close to mine and our pinkies would touch while we learned about vast oceans and prehistoric time periods. We tried to stay in our bubble. But apparently, our relationship, whatever a relationship is or can be to a 13 year old boy and girl who were both oldest kids, rule followers and pretty naive, was bigger than the bubble.
My parents may have had questions, but never aired them to me. And if they did, they did so in a manner that must have been supportive and trusting since I don’t remember them denying me this, in fact, I think my dad drove us to the mall once. They may have been worried about what I may hear or encounter, but they let me walk that road.
The outside world was cruel and the fact was no matter how accepting my friends and classmates were when it came to kick ball teams and birthday parties, it was still the south and old cultural norms die hard, or not at all. By “going together” we had somehow broken a code, crossed a line, done something wrong. Which I never understood. I was young and painfully naive. Why didn’t people understand we just liked each other? It wasn’t a political statement, it wasn’t forever, it was middle school and a boy liked me. Didn’t everyone see that to a girl in glasses who walked in the shadow of her best friend a lot was happy to find someone who shined a light on her?
Eventually, it ended. We broke it off because his parents were making it hard, our classmates’ words did hurt, despite the old adage, as did the occasional well placed foot to trip me on the bus or the unidentified flying object from the back of the bus. We were 13 and ill prepared for a stand to both of our respective communities. And that was that. I held onto a lot of anger that outside forces could be so powerful that they interfered with my small measure of happiness. I still didn’t truly understand. I still don’t.
In recent days, I see the fabric of the American quilt, where my seventh grade relationship is merely a minuscule stitch, ripping apart again in its already weakly sewn parts in the wake of recent events. I am still that young and naive girl who doesn’t understand why we can’t all just be people. Why we can’t all treat people like people. I see the riots and the protests and the pain and the screaming and the gnashing of teeth and find myself not understanding those that don’t understand why that is all happening, necessary, overdue and righteous. Will burning a police car solve any problems? No. But have you ever been angry and punched a hole in a wall, slammed a door, yelled at your kids/your spouse/another driver? Didn’t solve any problems, but it’s a natural response to anger, frustration, rage. Back in 1988, I watched a 13 year old boy’s eyes open to his black man reality while we were “together.” He wrote so many words to me where he tried to express the expectation, the challenge, the realization that it was going to be different for him than it was going to be for me. And that hurt both of us.
I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m not condoning violence. But I’m saying that this world needs a little more compassion. Compassion that your life experience varies very greatly from someone else’s, really everyone else’s, and that your truth and their truth are just as true. One doesn’t negate the other.
I wish I knew where he was now. I’ve tried to Google and Facebook search him before and always come up empty. He moved or went to a different high school, I can’t remember, and I haven’t spoken to him since we left the eighth grade halls of our middle school for the next big thing. I wonder what he has done, what experiences have made him who he is, if he remembers me at all in the way that I so fondly remember him. I wonder if he has kids and how he teaches these lessons. I wonder what he’s afraid of and what makes him happy and what he would say about all the angst and misery and confusion right now. I wonder if his hand is still as soft.
I wish I could hold his hand again and then join our hands with all the other hands of this troubled nation then use those hands to raise up those who need help, guide those who are lost, soothe those who feel pain, clap with those who feel joy, hug those who are lonely, feed those who are hungry, wipe away the tears of those in grief, pick up the burdens for those beaten down, unclench the fists of those who are angry, and clasp them in prayer for those who refuse to take the hand of a neighbor whose skin is different from their own. And this time, I won’t let go. Will you?