Look, she was really pretty. Any full-blooded first grade boy would think so. She was different from the rest, somewhere between the fun buddy you can play sports with and Kelly Kapowski. And a five-year-old girl. Mostly just a five-year-old girl. But regardless, she stood out, with the help of her much older sister, who was easily in fifth or sixth grade. She was almost in our middle school/high school, practically making her a woman. She gave Allie all the best older girl fashions, like side ponytails and three pairs of frilly socks going up her leg for some reason. I was too young to really understand it, clearly.
Her name was Allison, and she thoroughly dominated our little society. It happened fairly quickly. She liked playing sports and, unlike a lot of the other girls we played intramural soccer with, she was actually good. She wanted to win. She didn't quit the sport all together when she was bitten (not stung, mind you, but bitten) by a bee as she picked flowers on the soccer field in her yellow t-shirt. All of the girls deferred to her like animals in the wild; they found the queen bee and the group ran accordingly. Same with the males and our own archetypes. And, as a stutterer who had recently gotten a new pair of candy-apple red Disney glasses (my choice), I did not rank too high on the charts. Miraculously, not too low either. She'd high five the guy that won the race, the guy who climbed all the way across the monkey bars, the one who took a kick in the shin from her muscle, Jenna, and didn't have to walk away with their arms folded, definitely NOT crying. And I'm telling you, I DEFINITELY wasn't crying!! We'd make some small talk sometime because I could see her house from mine. And so I sat and watched, waving whenever she happened to walk up the street, but usually keeping our relationship to that: peering on from the outside, longing.
Ms. Cohen, our wonderful, grand-matronly teacher believed in peer teaching, letting us work together and build our social skills as well as having us learn a few times over. For our spelling tests, she would say the words aloud so we understand how to break down sounds into spelling. After we made our perfect recollection (or best guess), we'd switch our papers with someone else in the room. This would give us the opportunity to see very clearly which answer was right and which was wrong, further reinforcing that it's "door" with two o's and no e's. This way, if our parents came in, Ms. Cohen could say in all earnestly, "they learned it at least three times," although her soothing nature would couch it in a disarming pleasantness. Such was her way.
And we totally took advantage of it.
Every person that peer corrected a paper would have to sign it with their names, a mark of quality as much as another way to see if you understood the lessons (I told you she was sharp). But this also meant that, if you were completed and confident quick enough, you could walk over to Allie's desk, ask her to grade it where she'd have to respond to you and, with her unfailing smile, she'd oblige and switch papers. We'd each pull out our correcting crayons (hers red, mine purple because I only had a sky blue and that looked a bit light for such an important task) at our desks situated across the room and get to it.
She rarely needed any corrections (and smart to boot! swooooon) but it was nice to share this experience with her, signing my name to the paper as if she might forget one day and she could look back to this specific tome, the eventual basis of our long-lasting marriage, surely framed for our surprise 50th wedding anniversary party. She would sign her name, binding our imagined contract, in slightly fancier text, somewhere between the cursive we were currently learning and normal text. But she always dotted the "i" with a heart. You'd never think that a piece of paper adorned with "Mouse Cow Clok Dinner Low" could be so romantic.
This loophole in her gaining affection, this documented event that said it in so many letters, was quickly picked up by my friend Steve. He and I had taken to racing to the beanbag chair after finishing our math tests: the first one there (with the better score) would win (usually). He was very good at both math and running so I stood little of a chance. However, our skills were sharpened in that competition whose victory chest was merely bragging rights. This? This was for a lady's heart. And the ability to show everyone on the playground empirical proof that she totally…uh…wanted to be...friends with me…? more than anyone else in school!
The tests came every Friday, and so did an opportunity to hold your place for the next week. I was never much of a studier (a trend that would continue to this very day!) but I'll be damned if I didn't pop open a dictionary every Thursday night: this was important, not stupid, worthless cursive. So we went head-to-head, displaying a shocking mastery of both spelling ability and timeliness. On almost alternating trips, we would streak across the brown and darker-brown tiled floor, place our papers on her desk, smiling as much at her as the competitor. Then we started ending our tests a bit hastier, running a bit faster, and finishing in tandem to her desk, fighting over who actually got there first as there was no room for a tie in matters of the heart. Ms. Cohen curiously watched from behind her desk, arbitrarily deciding who got there first. Then she'd peer our reactions, watching as I stormed back to my seat and switched with my classroom neighbor (and current Inclusive webmaster), Scott. He was acutely aware of how I felt about his hands, his crayons, gracing my paper instead of hers. He'd seem sympathetic.
After a blow-up or two about our photo-finishes (though he usually won them which may or may not have something to do that she already taught his older sister, but I digress) it became obvious to everyone else how exactly to take this specific honor away from Steve and myself and mine it for themselves: just get there first. With our test scores already suffering, dropping into the 75/85 range, we could ill afford to drop any further out of pressure from the parental units who stressed the importance of "school" and "learning." What did our parents know of love? About our fascination with her pigtails, her lack of Disney-themed shirts, her adult allure? How could they understand?
And thus, the pool was diluted.
Now it didn't matter who wrote what or whatever. Most of these kids sucked at spelling anyway; their parents not only knew it, they expected it. What did they have to lose? They took a skill that in no way should be lauded and turned it into a matter of success in the stadium we had yet to fully grasp we were constantly competing in. If we had a preternatural ability to find out how to get close to Allie for a bit of time, they had an understanding of how to win the game in the long haul. Short-term victories have long-lasting patterns (a trend that would continue to this very day). As long as you got there, ready to provide something, the rest didn't seem to matter.
Mrs. Cohen had finally had enough when six of us boys just ran at Allie's desk as the final world was leaking out of her mouth. It didn't help that Allie screamed as if she was enrolled with bulls from Pamplona. We were only allowed to judge between the lesser of two evils sitting next to us, as we were forced to only switch with the people sitting next to us. I got very used to Scott's handwriting. It contained no hearts, much like my chest, especially seeing as Ms. Cohen always put Allie at the end with a female buffer to her right. Exiled like the VIP she was. And I was sitting outside the velvet ropes.
Sure, we had that one play date where we painted rocks at Kendall's house, but we couldn't get any alone time. How could I tell her the things I saw on TV to try and relay the things that I thought I was feeling, maybe? So that she would finally know. But Mrs. Cohen was a smart teacher: she used a spelling test to make us learn far beyond what a couple of monosyllabic words looked like all spelled out. She taught us how to say goodbye to girls like Allie. Soon she spent 8th grade looking like a Britney Spears clone and hung out with the older guys who could drive. She wouldn't give any of us former amateur spellers the time of day, in class and especially out of it.
But Ms. Cohen did fail in one aspect. Because of my priorities, I still can't spell for shit and it hasn't netted me any women. A trend that would continue to this very day.