In the 1967 television movie, “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown,” Charlie sits on a bench outside to eat a sandwich, wishing the little red-haired girl he is crushing on would come over and sit next to him. The next day is the final day of the school year and the fact that he won’t get to see her until the following year is killing him.
“There’s nothing like unrequited love to drain all the flavor out of a peanut butter sandwich,” he says to himself at the end of the scene.
I know how he felt. I had my own crush on a little red-haired girl named Brenda in my third-grade class. I had no idea what was going on, at first. When you’re eight and are accustomed to spending most of your time playing with Hot Wheels and a Barrel of Monkeys, trying to figure out how to hook all the plastic monkeys together without one of them falling, you aren’t exactly expecting a small ember in your gut to start burning for the girl across the room at school.
But yet, there it was.
She had freckles, long wavy red hair, and a shy little smile that was worth all of my Hot Wheels combined. For our class photo, the photographer lined all of us up outside on risers by the side of the school. I can’t remember how the photographer determined where each of us would stand for the photo, but one person ended up standing between Brenda and me in the front row. I think his name was Roland. Nothing against Roland, but I don’t think I liked him much after that.
So there I was, standing just one person away from Brenda—all decked out in my bright yellow Roy Gerela No. 10 jersey (he was the kicker for my favorite NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers; and before you make fun of me, what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t want to rock the kicker’s jersey from his favorite football team for class photo day?) with my bowl haircut (hey, all of the boys had them then, and yes, those haircuts made all of us look like Dorothy Hamill, but that was the style, so cut us some slack) and a big cheesy smile, knowing I was one thin kid away from Brenda.
All of us put our hands behind our backs and smiled—expect for Brenda, who was decked out in what I guess are called bloomers and a red and white striped, collared shirt. She just glared at the camera. I guess she mastered the art of the death stare early in life. I probably looked at the photo half a million times after it was developed—okay, maybe a million times—trying to figure out what she might have been mad about.
Was she upset that she got stuck in the front row? Was she mad at me for finagling my way to within one thin kid of her? Or for wearing my Roy Gerela jersey and ruining the class photo for everybody? Did she hate having her picture taken, in general, or did she hate the pose they forced on us? Was she hoping to get stuck next to one of the other boys in class that she might have been crushing on?
Of course, I never asked her any of these questions. Partially because I was afraid to hear her answer, and partially because I was a painfully shy overweight kid who couldn’t bear the thought of being shot down. My mom tells stories about how I used to run and hide every time the doorbell rang—which, back in those days, was pretty frequently. Nobody called before they headed over. They just stopped by on a whim. So I barely spoke a word in elementary school. Throw in the fact that I was new to the school that year because my parents had just divorced and my mom moved us to a different part of town, and I was even quieter.
Like Charlie Brown, I mostly admired the little red-haired girl from afar. I think we had a few interactions, but I’m pretty sure my body shut down each time we spoke, so I’m incapable of remembering any of them specifically.
First crushes are innocent. They happen way before sexual appetites enter the equation, even though your body starts to respond in other ways. You start by being inexplicably drawn to someone who, only a minute prior, probably had cooties—if the rumors were true. In an instant, you go from wanting to pull her stupid frizzy red hair to wanting to touch her shoulder. You go from rolling your eyes at her interests, to moving in a little closer to hang on her every word, no matter what she’s talking about. You go from having strong legs that can smash a kickball all the way across the sandlot, to knees of jelly that couldn’t kick a ping-pong ball two inches.
First crushes mess with your mind, too. You go from wondering if Roy Gerela will kick the game-winning field goal this coming weekend, to wondering what Brenda is doing this weekend. You go from making pacts with your friends to swear off girls forever, to swearing off such pacts forever. You go from fighting with your mom about having to take a bath three times a week, to fighting your sister for the bathroom so you can take a bath every night, on the off chance that you might get to stand by the little red-haired girl the next day.
First crushes lead to second crushes and eventually to first love. But we would be woefully unprepared for first love without having been punched in the gut by our first crush—either figuratively, or literally. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Brenda was thinking in the class photo. Maybe she wanted to punch me in the gut.
This is the first essay in Lee's upcoming book "Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites."
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