The old high school had been designed with segregation in mind; when that particular historical anomaly was finally put to deserved death, The Powers That Be were left with two buildings a mile apart, one newly empty, one full to capacity and then some. "Waste not, want not," they chanted, and the presumably-inferior facility was officially proclaimed the Freshman Building.

I don't really know if the class of '72 objected to this treatment; as a member in acceptable standing of the class of '69, I was not expected to have any interest in the opinions of the frosh — despite the fact that, owing to various weirdnesses that had befallen me in the name of "education", those frosh, being my age or thereabouts, were more truly my peer group than my mostly-three-year-older classmates. Besides, the freshmen were a mile away, so interactions with any of them were few and far between. If any of them were aware of my existence, it would have been news to me.

In mid-April of 1969, the phone call came: "We're going to be missing a couple of people for the debate tournament on Saturday, the nineteenth. Can you fill in?" Thinking I could probably bluff my way through it, I said I could.

Came Saturday, and I took the bus downtown to the school. It wasn't too long before I discovered how horribly unprepared I was for the rigors of formal debate; while I had already developed a fair skill for skewering opponents, I wasn't always playing by the rules as written, and it cost us points. Dejected by my poor performance, I did a fairly lousy job on the Original Oratory event, spewing out some nonsense about how to avoid cheating on tests, half vaudeville, half Max Shulman's Barefoot Boy with Cheek, and wholly appalling.

The next speaker was Alice Genevieve. (Well, that's not her real name, but what it was is not that important to the narrative, and while "Alice Genevieve" sounds sort of awkward to these ears, so did her real name, so we're going to call her Jeannie.) I didn't know much about Jeannie. First and foremost, she was a freshman (freshperson?); I wouldn't have seen her anyway. She was the kid sister of a classmate, which means that anything I was likely to hear was complaints about that "little pest" or something equally complimentary. And while the older sister was forward and outgoing, respectably pretty, maybe even sort of beautiful, the younger one came off as sort of mousy and nondescript, a flower forever inseparable from the wallpaper.

And then she spoke. She spoke of thunderstorms and of rainbows, of clouds and of sunshine, of tribulations and of triumph. Or maybe it was of something else — about two minutes into her speech, I lost track of the words and began focusing on Jeannie herself, her neatish, bespectacled face, her unruly but still somehow flattering hair, her soft and not-even-slightly whiny voice. Were it not for the presence of the podium, I might have checked out some of the other secondary sexual characteristics, at least to the extent Sixties fashion and Southern modesty and rigorous upbringing would permit, but by the time she finished, it wasn't necessary; I wanted her to go on forever, and I wanted to be there for all of it.

Came lunchtime, and I was close to hyperventilating. I'd never had this sort of reaction to anyone before. Oh, there were the occasional crushes here and there, but they never amounted to anything. More to the point, I knew they would never amount to anything; I had always figured that, except as a theoretical consideration worthy of occasional study, this male/female stuff was irrelevant to my existence. Suddenly here was Jeannie, and she was very, very relevant indeed. Things started to blur after that. We sat together at lunch and uttered the usual pleasantries; we went back into the school and picked up our participation awards (she got the bronze, or something, in Original Oratory); and then she got a ride home and I walked the mile and a half down to the bus stop amid deafening silence.

The bus ride was ten miles or so, and it ended two miles from my door; by the time I made it home, very late and very tired, I had pretty much persuaded myself that I was delusional, that whatever feelings I might have, surely they could never be returned. Part of this was good old-fashioned American caste consciousness: the one common characteristic of the landed gentry was that they always landed on top of someone, and that someone was generally a boondocks-dweller like me. But mostly it was, as the Catholics (and Wayne Campbell) said, non sum dignus — "I am not worthy."

And I persisted in this belief until the Senior Prom was safely over, to the disgust of all concerned. Eventually, Jeannie and I would go out, and things blossomed quite nicely, until I was packed off to school halfway through the summer. Who knows how it might have turned out? I don't have any idea. We kept in touch for about a year — as a sophomore, perhaps she was delighted to have a boyfriend in college, even 1500 miles away. But I was despondent. Finally, after all this time, I find someone for me, and we get only three months together?

A lot has happened in the thirty years since then. The old school has moved into spectacular new quarters with room for everyone. In 1977, I did actually manage to get a date or two, which turned into a marriage the following year, producing two lovely children and incredible quantities of pent-up frustration on both sides. Needless to say, it didn't last. We were first separated in 1982, divorced in 1987. If I have had a "love life" since then, it has been marginal at best; lately, most of the few who have stirred any interest have been officially spoken for, and those who haven't — well, that's another issue. Still, each year on the nineteenth of April, I take a few moments to reflect upon the events of that day, to the extent that failing memory permits, and to rejoice in the fact that I was actually hopeful about love for the first time.

And, apparently, the last.

The Vent

19 April 1999

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 Copyright © 1999 by Charles G. Hill