On a Saturday night in the fall of my freshman year my parents dropped me off at a party in the gymnasium of the small parochial high school that I attended. All the students had been invited to the party, but most of the upperclassmen either had gone to these events before and knew to avoid it or had taken off in the cars that they now had licenses to drive. As a result, nearly all of the kids remaining were freshmen or sophomores. A few of the teachers had come to chaperone, but most of the party’s organizers were parents.
There were refreshments, of course, so if we didn’t have anything else to do, we could hang around the line of tables covered with white paper tablecloths that featured piles of oatmeal cookies, which were not good, and chocolate brownies and lemon bars, which were but which were rapidly drying out. There was some sort of cherry cool-aid drink that one of the mothers had been pouring out into little cut-glass cups and that we were spilling inadvertently or maybe intentionally on the gymnasium floor. Soft drinks would have been nice, but our church frowned on carbonated beverages, and colas were strictly forbidden because they contained caffeine.
Like most of the kids, I was dressed in better-than-school-day clothes, which meant that I wore khakis rather than jeans. The girls were wearing dresses or jumpers and blouses. Lots of the guys were running around showing off, while most of the girls had clumped together along one of the walls, watching the boys and maybe hoping to get noticed. Nearly all of us were feeling a little awkward and just wanting to fit in.
At some point in the evening the organizers began introducing us to more structured games. Maybe they sensed that the party was flagging, or maybe the point of the evening was for us to engage in some “socialization activities” involving both boys and girls. In any event, one of the games we played—the one that I now recall vividly—was the lifesaver relay. In this game the kids were divided into teams, each team comprised of an equal number of boys and girls. The kids on each team were instructed to form a line alternating boy-girl-boy-girl. And everyone was given a toothpick that they were to hold between their teeth and sticking out of their mouth. The first person on each team, a boy as it happens, was given a lifesaver that he was to place on his toothpick and to pass on to the girl next in line by slipping it from his toothpick onto hers, and so on to the end of the line. This was to be done without touching the teammate—in any way.
Just what were these parents thinking? This was at a time (1960) and place where a boy and girl could be called into the principal’s office just for holding hands. Maybe they thought it was time for us to experience some innocent titillation. And maybe that’s what some of the other, more experienced, kids were thinking too. But that’s not what I was thinking. A late bloomer, I was barely into puberty and had had zero experience with the opposite sex. My biggest fear was that I would inadvertently brush the lips of the girl next in line and everyone would laugh—at me.
What made matters exponentially worse was that Carol was on my team. Carol was, to put things kindly, the least attractive girl in my class. She had a long curving nose coupled with a small pointed chin. Rail thin, her movements were awkward and she always seemed to walk leaning back. In hindsight it is evident that she was mildly cognitively disabled. Not only was she “slow” academically but some of her socialization skills were also delayed. In the lower grades kids had made fun of her unmercifully. In high school she was disdained or simply ignored. Personally, I never teased anyone, including Carol. I knew from personal experience how painful it was to be the butt of others’ jokes.
That didn’t mean that I wanted to be next to Carol in the lifesaver relay. Too late I realized that everyone else on my team had quickly positioned themselves so as to avoid being next to Carol or, now that I think about it, next to me. So there we were, Carol and I, at the end of the line. And now the relay was starting and my only hope was that the other team would be faster than us and that the game would end before the lifesaver got to me. No such luck. Our team was way better than the competition. The girl ahead of me seemed particularly skilled in chastely transferring the lifesaver to my toothpick. And then I turned and there was Carol, waiting with her toothpick ready. She looked at me expectantly, the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile. Her eyes kept shifting back and forth between my toothpick and my eyes. Could she actually be enjoying this? I could feel my face getting very red as I tried and failed repeatedly to slip the lifesaver over her toothpick. But whether it was my lack of coordination or hers or whether it was my determination as a 14-year-old not, under any circumstances, to touch her lips, this just wasn’t happening.
And then it was over. A faint cheer went up from the other team. They had caught up and won. We could stop. I took the toothpick out of my mouth. Carol, still smiling, turned and walked away, never having said a word. It was then that one of the mothers came over and took me aside to thank me for what I had done.
© 2017 John M. Phillips