Chuck sat next to me at a lab table in ninth-grade Science class. He was one of the most handsome boys in the school. He had deepset large eyes, a lovely angular elfin jaw with a cleft chin, and wavy, shiny brown hair that would feel like silk in your fingers—you just knew it. He was a star on the football team, and, on top of that, he was kind, smart, and funny.
I was a well-defined member of the nerds: Ugly, skinny, tall, flat-chested, and considered highly intelligent.
Therefore, Chuck and I got along extremely well because there was absolutely zero sexual tension between us. I, who was paralyzingly shy, felt no shyness whatsoever with Chuck. I figured that I wasn’t even a girl to him: I was just a lab partner.
We had a blast that year. Mr. Call droned on and on, managing to make my favorite subject, Biology, into the most boring topic imaginable.
Chuck and I would pile up all our textbooks but one which we leaned against the pile, making it a ramp. We decorated the sides of pieces of chalk and pencil stubs by writing slogans on them: “Maserati Master”, “Rolling Racer”, etc. Then, we rolled these nubbins sideways down the ramp, like the Hot Wheels toys, only, of course, we called our version Hot Pencils.
It may sound dumb, but our races got pretty spirited—money even exchanged hands at nearby tables. Once in a while, when my unladylike cackling got out of hand Mr. Call would ask us to tone it down, but other than that, he let us be.
Weekly, the class had a test. After each one, Mr. Call would read each student’s score aloud. When the year began, Chuck’s scores, like most of the other football players’, were in the 70s. As the weeks went on, though, they began a steady rise. Soon, he was earning high 90s marks, just like mine.
The class began to snicker and openly accuse Chuck of cheating off of me. I am thankful Mr. Call clarified aloud that Chuck and I were getting different questions wrong. It never occurred to me that Chuck was trying to raise his grades in order to prove to me that he was intelligent—I had always known he was.
When Chuck began to compliment me–on my clothes, my shoes, my hair—I still didn’t get what was going on. At last, I couldn’t help but tumble: One day, just as the bell rang for the end of class, Chuck turned to me, and, very bravely, I now realize, he reached over and gently took hold of my left hand with his right.
I didn’t know what to do! Here was this wonderful boy, someone I laughed easily with, someone any girl would love to have as her boyfriend, and he was asking me to be his girlfriend! All I could think was “He’s been confused by the fun we have in class—he doesn’t know what he’s doing—he’s making a big mistake! He’s on the football team, for crying out loud! I won’t fit in with his friends! Everyone will make fun of him! He will be sorry! He will be embarrassed!”
At the lab table in front of us, Chuck’s friend Michael was watching, waiting to see what would happen. He had a ringside seat to observe as I, also ever so gently, reached over and disengaged Chuck’s hand from mine. Then, I just stood up and walked away.
The next day, I acted as if nothing had happened. Chuck had no choice but to act the same. How difficult those growing up years can be!
A few years back, I tried to find Chuck in an online high school directory. I failed. I wanted to write to him, in case he remembered that incident, so that I could offer him a many-years belated apology for my awful, if unintentional, cruelty. And maybe, just maybe, I wondered if Chuck was currently unattached… (Yes, pitiful, I know, but don’t say you’ve never had one of those moments!)
Chuck, wherever you are, thank you for being so sweet and brave, and thank you for the boost your compliments gave me back then. I wish I had been secure enough to grab the opportunity of knowing you better, but I’m glad I got to be your Hot Pencils partner. It was a joy.