Brian Jacques, the author of the Redwall book series, died on February 7th, 2011. As a child, I really loved these stories about little animals valiantly fighting wars and doing courageous deeds. I had almost the entire series, though I don't think I got around to reading all of them. This, however, is not the point. When I heard that Jacques had died it brought up some memories that I haven't thought about in a very long time, and I wanted to share that with you.
When I was in the second grade there was a little brown-haired boy with a bowl cut-- we all knew one, though, didn't we? His name was Matt and he was one of my closest friends. I was one of his only friends. He was a little shy, for starters, and everyone thought it was weird that he didn't want to celebrate Halloween. He had a Bible in his desk next to his copy of Martin the Warrior, his favorite Redwall book. He read those two books almost exclusively during reading time.
He was also weird because he didn't have a dad. His father had died of cancer and for whatever reason-- the cruelty of young, naive children-- this was another thing he was targeted. People made fun of him because he didn't have a dad. I imagine now that the teasing was more out of the lack of an ability to understand what all that meant. I like to think that now these same kids would never taunt someone for losing a parent, but back then that's how it was. Matt was ostracized for being awkward, insecure, and fatherless.
But I liked Matt. I liked him liked him. We talked about his books and played pretend during recess. We were brave, strong wolves back then and would sit beneath the bushes fleshing out our mythology. We probably got along so well because I was a little strange, too, but mostly just nerdy. Though I had several good friends of my own, it was he and I who formed a pack and thus it was my job to protect him. It didn't feel like a betrayal, though, that I drafted dozens of letters from "your secret admirer" to slip in his cubby when he wasn't looking. I'm sure the letters told him how cute he was and that I liked his hair and his smarts and check "yes" or "no" do you love me, too? Love, your secret admirer. He'd never guess even if I'd wanted him to.
My girl friends were jealous of Matt. I spent a lot of time with him, often favoring quiet recesses with him over jump rope or four square (I was woefully uncoordinated anyway). One afternoon as these girls and I played tag, I noticed Matt sitting by himself. He was crying.
"I'm going to go play with Matt," I said (probably-- I obviously don't remember exactly). "I think he's crying."
"You can't go," one of the girls said.
"You play with him too much. Just because you love him," another chimed.
"You never play with us anymore," the first continued. "You don't even like us, do you? You don't like us anymore, Vanessa?"
"I like you," I said, "but I need to go help him."
"If you go over there," said my best friend at the time, "we won't be friends with you anymore. You'll be out of the group and you'll be alone."
I was faced with the most difficult decision of my eight years. Would I be loyal to my own sex, my girl friends, or this boy I liked? He was my friend, yes, but in second grade boys were like aliens-- maybe not to be trusted, certainly not friends. At the very least they weren't the most important kind of friend.
So I took a deep breath.
And I left to see Matt. I'm not sure how he didn't know I loved him.
He found out soon enough.
I don't remember how it happened exactly. All I know is one afternoon he discovered one of my notes, one I had foolishly, boldly signed "your secret admirer, Vanessa." I had obviously missed the point of secret admiring. Matt confronted me about it. Instead of an outpouring of previously-hidden love I was met with anger and confusion. He didn't want me to be his secret admirer. He didn't like it, not one bit. Looking back, I think what I experienced was an early version of being Friend Zoned. I started to cry.
Our teacher took us out into the hall when she noticed the commotion.
"It's nice to have a secret admirer," she explained to Matt. "It means that someone likes you very much. It's a compliment."
He didn't want one. I was still sobbing out of sadness and burning embarrassment.
"You two are very good friends," she continued. "I see you play all the time. This note is very nice, and it doesn't change anything. You can still be friends."
We were not friends. Not ever again.
Suddenly we didn't talk. We didn't make eye-contact. When the grade-wide games of capture-the-flag started, boys versus girls, he'd silently stalk the line between our sides without a word or a sidelong glance. But he'd stay near where I was, a constant reminder of my failure.
I didn't understand. I had been his friend when no one else liked him. I had talked to him about his books. I didn't tease him. I let him talk about his dad in the rare moments when he wanted to open up about the loss. We had been a wolf pack together, just us two. I had gone to him when my friends finally gave me an ultimatum. When given a choice, I chose to be there for him. It didn't make sense-- even when one of my girl friends (they hadn't really abandoned me that day) explained my mistake.
"Boys our age aren't ready for love," she said. "You have to wait until they're mature, like in the fourth grade." Sage advice.
Fourth grade came and went and he still didn't love me. In fact, we hadn't talked since second grade.
For the rest of my life-- up until now-- we only talked once after the day he saw the letter.
It was 10th grade. My gym class was asked to play baseball against his. I had somehow actually hit a baseball-- I was still woefully uncoordinated and horrible at sports-- and gotten to second base. Matt was the second baseman, just my luck. We awkwardly avoided eye-contact.
Suddenly my team was yelling at me. "Run to third, run to third!"
For whatever reason I was bewildered. I didn't want to run. I was slow and I couldn't make it I was sure. My teammates were mad now and my cheeks were hot.
"It's okay," he said suddenly. I saw him smile. "It's just a game."
What was your first crush like? Have you ever sent a secret admirer letter?