Of candy hearts, first crushes… and duds

photo by jdurham via morguefile.com

Here in the Gangsei house we spent the weekend awash in candy hearts, glitter glue and cardboard Valentines in preparation for upcoming school V-Day parties. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like jamming a couple dozen pink princess lollipops into tiny envelopes to make a person wistfully recall those heady days of first crushes… sweaty palms… pink cheeks and think…

Man, I’m glad I’m not eleven anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think middle-graders are some of the most awesome people on the planet. Full of wonder and ideas and hopes and dreams. But, if I had to pick my most awkward time — especially when it came to matters of the heart — well, it didn’t get much worse than sixth grade. Today, I consider myself a happy, confident, comfortable-in-my-own-skin sort of girl. But back then? This was me in a nutshell: knock-kneed, flat-chested, mouthful of huge silver braces and a too-big nose that was permanently stuck in a book.

(I’d share a picture, but, yanno, sometime around my sixteenth birthday/post-braces/post-growth spurt, in a fit of retroactive vanity I destroyed all evidence of my formerly geeky self. And no, Mom, that wasn’t a challenge. Just step away from that secret box of yours in the basement. I said step away…)

Ahem… so now let’s flash back a few years to shy, skinny, bookworm 11-year-old Jan, who just so happened to harbor a huge crush on a dark-haired, doe-eyed hockey player of a boy named Brian P. Now, I was hardly alone in my infatuation. Pretty much every sixth-grade girl at Barre Town Elementary School was in love with the dashing Brian P. In fact, entire lunch periods were devoted to the discussion of his thick, black eyelashes and wavy locks. Every girl dreamed of wearing his number five hockey jersey and cheering as he scored a winning goal. His name adorned more sparkly pink notebook covers than the words “math,” “science” and “history” combined. Let’s just say he was the Justin Bieber of central Vermont circa nineteen-eighty-something.

So, imagine my complete shock (excitement/horror/fear) when Brian P. strolled across the gymnasium one fateful evening to where I stood by the bleachers with a huddle of girls. While Hall & Oats crooned in the background about kisses or dreams coming true (hard to say, exactly, as I had gone into cardiac arrest), he asked me to dance. A slow dance. I might’ve fainted. I’m not sure. (I vaguely remember a stiff-armed, foot-tripping, where-do-I-look kind of shuffle around the dance floor.) Whatever. It must not have been too horrible, because from that point on good old Brian P. was at my side in homeroom, at lunch, during recess — valiantly giving me his gloves when my hands were cold, picking me (the biggest clutz in the entire sixth grade) for his kickball team, asking me out on an official “date.”

Yep, a date: to go skating together one Saturday afternoon at the local ice arena.

In the days leading up to the date, the BFF and I obsessed over every detail: how to wear my hair (feathered), whether to wear a hat and gloves (definitely not!) and what to wear (can’t go wrong with a sweater and leg warmers, right?).

When the big day finally arrived, it was nothing short of sixth-grade magic: Brian P. took me by the ungloved hands and led me effortlessly around the rink. We sipped hot chocolate while the Zamboni man smoothed the skate-chopped ice back to glass. We talked and laughed. And when it came time to leave, I was compelled to stand on my tippy-toes in the freezing cold parking lot and give Brian P. a kiss right on the… cheek (after which I ran, red-faced and horrified, directly in to the back seat of my mother’s awaiting station wagon, where I think I hyperventilated for a full ten minutes).

Yep, heady days, indeed.

And my 11-year-old response to all this swoon-inducing, cheek-burning, heart-thumping love? It was to march straight up to poor old Brian P. the following Monday at recess and inform him I was breaking up with him. Because he was a dud.

That’s right. I actually called the most un-dudley guy in the entire sixth grade, the Justin Bieber of Barre, Vermont, a dud. (To this day, I’m still not entirely sure what made that word come out of my mouth. Post-kiss-stress-disorder, I guess.)

Thankfully (for myself and every boy within a fifty mile radius), I promptly stopped “dating” and stuck my nose back in a book where it was safe. I spent the next couple of years agonizing over bra sizes with Margaret, worrying about back braces with Deenie, and getting a better handle on boys from Tony Miglione. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have survived adolescence without Judy Blume. (Not to mention the further damage I would’ve likely inflicted on the opposite sex.) Books were my safe harbor in the weird, exciting and bumpy waters of growing up, which is probably why I like writing for this age group so much (even if it does mean dredging up some of my less admirable moments for inspiration).

So, now it’s your turn: In honor of Valentine’s Day, tell me your fondest/funniest/most horrifying middle grade love memory (whether it’s your own or from your favorite book!).

And lest you all worry that Brian P. spent the rest of his formative years on a therapist’s couch… In fact, he went on to be the hottest catch in high school. Prom king. Homecoming king. And, who knows, probably King of Liechtenstein by now. So a lesson to all you girls out there: watch out who you call a dud. And boys? If some sixth grade girl says you’re a fool, chances are you are the exact opposite. Brian P., if you’re reading? Sorry about that. Call me. I owe you a hot chocolate.

And to everyone else: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Jan Gangsei