My first love was a very pretty girl, pictured above, that I spent my fourth-grade year with.
In this chapter I detail my struggle to find Connie something good for Christmas, and my mother's efforts at helping.
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Cute Little Unmentionables
There were three homeroom teachers for the fourth-grade class. Notably, I don’t remember my own homeroom teacher; I do unfortunately remember Connie’s: a prissy woman with a southern accent who was loved by all the girls and hated by all the boys and went by the name of Mrs. Hancock.
And, of course, I remember him.
Mr. Kaeslau was this great cherub of a man with wild black hair and a clock-round face atop a huge pear-shaped body. He had playful, penetrating dark eyes and always wore sweater vests that were too tight for him, and navy-blue slacks that seemed to accent his bow legs. His big pot belly rolled and trembled when he laughed. It was a laugh you could hear three hallways over. It was always the same hair-raising, crescendo-rising guffaw:
It had a set pattern to it; it never deviated from that cadence. It was the same sort of laugh a fat, Polish Sherlock Holmes would make, I’m absolutely sure of it.
The Sherlock Holmes reference is precisely chosen, for Mr. Kaeslau was a terrifying genius at spotting every single romance within the student body of Tavelli Elementary. Even if that romance were barely budding, he could spot it. And then all sorts of embarrassment ensued, for Mr. Kaeslau would spill the beans to the entire school, sometimes quite cleverly, always loudly. Once spilled, he would give that trademark laugh, and every kid in the building even thinking of hanging out with someone of the opposite sex, or writing them a note, or offering them a piece of candy ...
… or walking around together at recess ...
… or sitting on the bus together ...
… or sitting on the sandbox wall ...
… cringed in total and absolute terror of being singled out.
Connie, as I just mentioned, had Mrs. Hancock as her homeroom teacher, and I had some other (long since forgotten) woman. Thankfully, both Connie and I were rarely with Mr. Kaeslau’s homeroom class. But one day near Christmas the big wall dividers were pulled open, and the three classes became one. There was a freshly cut Christmas tree in Mr. Kaeslau’s room, and all sorts of construction paper and glue and tinsel and sparkles on work tables; Bing Crosby was crooning “White Christmas” on the record player, and the air smelled of pine and peppermint candy canes and cinnamon eggnog. Our assignment was to make the fourth-grade homerooms the best in the school (it must’ve been a contest between the classes; I can’t remember); we would be spending the rest of the day doing so.
I remember the happy thrill that ran through me; I remember an even happier one when I stood, looking for Connie, and saw her sitting in the next room, already looking for me, a smile lighting her face when she spotted me.
And I remember Mr. Kaeslau. He was staring right at me and smiling quite devilishly, just before moving off to get his own class in order.
The game was up.
Any moment I expected: “HA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! HA-HA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
Connie walked over to me. “Want to decorate the Christmas tree?”
I nodded, glancing nervously over my shoulder at Mr. Kaeslau, who was helping a large group of kids wrap presents at a long table. His attention—for now—had been diverted elsewhere.
Connie didn’t seem at all nervous at the horrifying prospect of being humiliated in front of the entire fourth-grade class.
We made our way to the tree, where we draped gold and silver tinsel over its sharp green needles. We stood close together, touching often, sharing small smiles. Surely she knew the hammer could, and probably would, fall at any moment; but her courage fueled mine, and I pretended that potential humiliation and teasing laughter and pointing fingers meant nothing.
She glanced up from her work at the bottom of the tree. “Do you care?”
I knew exactly what she was asking.
We had already endured to that point no small measure of ribbing and harassment, from the gentle and fun to the vicious and condescending, these past four months, from our classmates. We had given them nothing in return, believing they’d eventually leave us alone, which, to their visible frustration, they did. But this—a teacher getting in on the act—would be too much to deal with. It would give those frustrated teasers new life and energy.
Connie’s smile widened. She stood and handed me more decorations. Most of the other kids were boisterously playing various games in a far corner; no one was decorating the tree besides us. Connie stood very close. She was beaming at me in a way that made my heart ache and my neck tingle and my eyes dry. She would throw such smiles at me during times of supreme happiness, and I could do nothing whatsoever but stand paralyzed and astonished.
Mrs. Hancock came abruptly around the corner, breaking Connie’s spell. She gave me an irritated sneer and Connie a quick, gentrified smile.
“Connie, dear” she drawled, “your momma is here, in the front office. You may collect your belongings and go. Have a good Christmas vacation, dearest.”
Another sneer, another country-club smile, and Mrs. Hancock was off to favor the girls in her classroom some more.
I glanced at the time. It was 2 p.m. Just like that, five hours had passed.
But there was still another hour to go! And then the bus ride home—! And I had several gifts to give her yet—!
Connie gave me a very sad look. “I’m going to
for Christmas break,” she said. “We’re driving. Hold on a minute. I’ll be right
She went to her desk and opened it, pulled out a gift. She returned and handed it to me.
“Merry Christmas, Shawn,” she said with a faltering smile. Before I could go fetch the gifts I’d gotten her, she turned and hurried out the door, looking back once as she left, that very sad look still on her face.
Her gift came wrapped in ornate pink wrapping paper and was the size and shape of a small shoe box. There was a card attached to it. After looking at both for a long moment, I numbly took them back to my desk, where I stowed them next to the gifts I had so looked forward to giving to her. I had had absolutely no idea what to get her; I ended up meekly going to Mom for advice.
Mom found out about Connie and me at the parent-teacher conference earlier in the school year from my homeroom teacher, who spilled the beans. Mom was one of only two adults  who never referred to our relationship as “puppy love,” nor did she ever behave condescendingly about it, or to me, nor did she ever try to break us up or keep us apart, as I’m certain most other parents would have done. What she did was hug me close and then kiss me.
“I guess she likes the tall, dark, and handsome sort,” she said with a laugh and a twinkle in her eye. “She’s got good taste.”
Having asked her what I should get Connie, she nodded thoughtfully.
“Let’s go shopping,” she said.
I remember to this day where we went: Woolworth’s and JC Penney. I remember the sky that day: a deep, forbidding gray. I remember the excitement I felt as I piled out of the station wagon. After all, I wasn’t getting a gift for a family member, who, as I knew, never really cared what I got them (it was the parents’ gifts that had the real weight), but a gift for someone I loved so deeply it was unbearable for me to think of how much for long.
But: What do you get for a girl? No, not my sisters: they weren’t girls. Okay, okay, yes, they were girls, but they didn’t count as such. Not to me, their brother. This was a girl. What do you get for a girl?
I followed Mom to the very back of the Woolworth’s, where a portly middle-aged man greeted her. He glanced down at me.
“This the one?” he asked gruffly, like a police detective would a criminal in handcuffs being hauled into the precinct.
“This is the one,” said Mom with a half-exasperated sigh. She reached up and lovingly patted my shoulder.
“Come along then, boy,” said the man. I gazed at Mom.
“Go on,” she said. “He’ll get you started. I’ve got things to do.”
She gave me a stern stare, and I, flustered and in love, had no idea why. I thought she might be angry at me; in truth, she needed a few moments by herself to get one of my Christmas gifts wrapped, which that particular Woolworth’s did at that time of year. My Mom, the very clever and devious soul she was at Christmastime, had already called ahead and, while I was trotting off with the portly man, other Woolworth’s employees had slipped outside to the station wagon and had found my gift (a wristwatch, if I recall correctly) and had returned with it inside, where they wrapped it in back.
The man took me to a huge rack of Christmas cards in a far corner. He swept his arm out from his round belly. “Take your pick,” he said. He studied me. “It’s for your sweetheart, right?”
Your sweetheart. The words struck me dumbly. It was as though this man was talking to another adult. Shyly, I nodded.
He gave an impatient grunt. “Right here. Look here,” he said. He pointed at a small section of the rack before marching off, but not before giving me a hard slap on my back. I was just one of the guys to this man, nothing more. There was nothing to be excited about; You’re in love, his slap told me, so deal with it. Get her a card. It’s no big deal.
But the cards were so ... well, adult. They felt adult. And I wasn’t an adult. They all offered sentiments that were incongruent to my relationship with Connie. They seemed too sentimental, too smarmy. Too much cursive, and too many pastel flowers, and too many references to anniversaries and weddings and “years together” and whatnot. It took a long time, but I finally found a small white card with a red-line drawing of a puppy on it, no writing at all inside. I was thoroughly frustrated by that point, but the card featured a puppy, and Connie loved puppies. I would have to write her something myself. Already I was mulling over exactly what I should say.
Mom collected me a few minutes later. She paid for the card after giving me a sly but understanding smile, and we hurried out the door and back into the station wagon and the dusty-smelling warmth blowing out of its window defrosters. The roads were freezing over, and I remember her complaining about them as the station wagon fishtailed scarily along
College Avenue. But we made it to JC
Penney’s safe and sound, parking in its large slush-covered parking lot.
In the past, there was nothing in JC Penney’s that had ever really interested me. After all, it was a store mostly devoted to clothes—and no self-respecting boy cared about clothes. We boys wore clothes only because shrieking about the neighborhood stark-ass naked was illegal. Whenever my brother or I excitedly unwrapped a Christmas gift only to discover it was a new pair of blue jeans or a sweater or a button-down shirt, we’d have to suppress a huge, disappointed sigh. Give us a bike, for goodness’ sake! Give us a GI Joe action figure! Give us a game or, as I received that year, a beautiful telescope. But clothes? Yawn! A waste of good Christmas-loot dollars by our estimation.
Standing with Mom just inside the entrance to JC Penney’s, I now saw the store in a whole new light.
Connie was a girl. And girls—all girls, even girls not girls—loved clothes.
I was standing in a perfumed El Dorado, surrounded by the very stuff that might just earn me another of those riveting smiles and—dare I think it?—a kiss!
I had told Mom after showing her the card that Connie really loved puppies, so we trekked immediately to the area of the store where plush puppies were sold. We settled on a really adorable brown one with huge black eyes and a cute stump of a tail. Then we went on the hunt for—girl clothes.
It was certifiably the weirdest hour of my young life. I was excited and exhilarated and knew if any of my guy friends from school saw me interestedly scouring through girl shirts and girl pants and girl hats in the girls’ section of a decidedly girl store, that my He-Man Girl-Hater’s membership card would be cut up in front of me.
But after more than a half hour of looking, nothing jumped out and screamed Buy me! I was growing desperate and very frustrated.
Mom saw my frustration. In a last-ditch attempt to find something, she took me to where they sold girls’ underwear.
This was no longer exciting and exhilarating. This was terrifying. Awe-inspiring.
I have three sisters, all of whom I had seen many times in their underwear. It was no big deal. They weren’t girls, after all. Just girls.
Connie was a girl. And here I was, actually mulling over getting her something that she’d wear under her brown long coat and red skirt, something she’d never, ever show me. My breath was locked up in the dank and deep cellars of my lungs, and something warm stirred just south of my tummy. I kept furtively glancing out from between racks of cute little unmentionables for those boys—when I wasn’t staring open-mouthed at those cute little unmentionables outright. I couldn’t seem to help myself. I remember sweating, and unclear what was making me sweat more: being discovered, or the cute little unmentionables.
Mom suddenly reappeared with something pink on a hanger. I pulled focus, blinking and swallowing, and looked at it.
It was ... a shirt. No, a dorm shirt. A pretty pink cotton dorm shirt with a big red heart on the chest. It would probably fall to just above Connie’s mid-thigh. The thought gave me long pause. I exhaled. Mom patiently waited, studying me with a curious smile on her face.
What was happening to me?
I nodded jerkily, and we purchased it, and we took Connie’s gifts home, slipping and sliding all the way. Mom wrapped them for me. Thankfully they were some of the last gifts Mom wrapped that Christmas. Thankfully—because I was now completely and totally obsessed with that dorm shirt.
In the meantime, after very long deliberation and consideration, not to mention many rewrites, I came up with the work of literary genius that was Connie’s Christmas note. It went thus:
I like you. Do you like me?
Please place a check next to the answer.
—And here I was, holding those gifts, that very note, looking wistfully at the classroom door that Connie had just hurried through on her way to
A huge meaty appendage descended heavily onto my shoulder. Startled, I glanced up at its owner.
He was looking down at me with a broad, knowing grin. In his other paw he twirled a sprig of mistletoe.
“Guess I’m a little late to give this to you,” he rumbled. “It works wonders.”
That rictus widened.
But the humiliating guffaw never came, as I fully expected. I had already braced myself.
“You’ve got something very special there, Mr. Helbert,” he said quietly with an understanding—and, most surprisingly, compassionate—nod. “Remember what it feels like, because it doesn’t happen often.”
He handed me the mistletoe.
“She’s a very lovely little girl, and she really likes you,” he added. He glanced at the sprig in my unsure grasp. “If that doesn’t do the trick, come see me. I’ve got all sorts of Valentine’s Day stuff that’ll work like a charm.”
He gave me a couple of friendly, massive, knee-bending pats and walked away. And there I stood, completely dumbfounded. Because I knew with those pats that Mr. Kaeslau had just assured me he’d not tease Connie and me. Against all odds we had somehow received a pardon.
The bus ride home was cold and gray and gloomy. I sat next to the window, the seat next to me sad and empty, and stared out. I was trying to suppress a great big smile. For Connie’s Christmas card, which I’d opened on the bus first thing, read:
I hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
[3 tiny red hearts drawn next to each other]
“Love, Connie.” Wow. Double wow.
Hearts! And those were Xs—which stood for kisses; and Os, which stood for hugs. I had temporarily lost all interest in the shoe-box-shaped gift still unopened in my lap: those letters were all I’d ever need from her. Before the bus had lumbered up the hill to my house to let me off, I probably reread that card a dozen times.
What was in the little shoe box? As it turned out, it was full of a really odd assortment of knickknacks: stones and feathers, a small book on American Indians, a fresh pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit (often, while sitting on the sandbox wall, I’d offer her a stick of gum—Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit), a circle with wires in it in an interesting pattern and with pretty white feathers hanging off the bottom of it, and, best of all, a crayon drawing. On it was a tall boy with the name SHAWN, and to his right was a shorter girl named CONNIE. The figures were holding hands.
It turned out to be the only time in my entire formal education that I counted down the days till Christmas Break ended and I could return to school.