I might have liked the Square Dance unit in gym class if I hasn't been a head taller than every boy in the universe. I'm sure the cute, short girls had buckets of fun in the 1960s allemanding left and promenading all over the place. Remind me to poll them on Facebook.
October, 1961. Sixth grade. Clammy hands. Dry throat. That's me, waiting to get picked. That's me, picked last, to the hoots and hollers of the group. That's me, pretending not to hear.
Our gym teachers went with the Darwinian model when it came to Square Dance as they did for every game we ever played. Square Dancing seemed very much like Dodge Ball except there was some curtsying here and there. I was always slightly disappointed on the first day when I didn't wake up temporarily paralyzed.
"Girls on this side of the gymnasium, boys on that one. Line up, single file," one of them would say. And with that, boys chose partners, one at a time. Was there a course in college for gym teachers called Humiliation 101?
So here it was, another year when no miraculous change in the curriculum was going to save me. I began by checking to see if any of the boys had grown a foot or two over the summer. As always only Russell Oliver, whose parents were rumored to be over seven feet tall, was taller than I was. I silently yearned for other families to be overtaken with whatever chromosome arrangement was lurking in the Olivers' bodies. I saw no growth spurts.
"Kevin O'Hara!" our teacher announced. Kevin had the easy part. He walked to the other side of the gym, sizing up the girls waiting to be chosen. He took his pick, and brought her to the center line so everyone could be clear on who the most popular kids were. Then every boy, one by one, got his turn.
As the number of unchosen girls started to dwindle, I did what I did every year. I hunkered down for the long haul, attempting a casual pose, absently looking up at the rafters as if thinking, What is that exciting, important thing I'm doing later?
Russell was called third on this day, an enviable position if he wanted to pick a pretty girl, and why wouldn't he?
Then, in a move that made no sense to anyone, Russell walked over and chose me. What? I may have heard a collective gasp, or maybe that was just the voice in my head. Life was mighty rosy from the center line when you're not the last girl chosen.
I always thought Russell's choosing me was a pure act of kindness. As the only boy tall enough to promenade me through the perils of 6th grade, I thought it was a conscious choice, meant to help me out.
About five years ago, I found Russell Oliver on Facebook and wrote to him, telling him how fondly I remembered this moment and thanking him for it. His response was gracious without overcommitting.
I don't think for a moment he remembered any of it. He got over it long ago is my guess. Good for him. I'll stick with my version. It was a moment of grace in a ridiculously unkind year. And I never forgot.