During the spring of my sixth grade year, my family moved to Nevada. It is a painful time in a child’s life when she is just becoming aware of her future as a woman, but is firmly entrenched in childhood still. Where a shy child is certain to be left alone, and a smart one is sure to be scorned.
Maybe if my mother hadn’t made me wear the shirt with the frilly ruffles along the collar I would be a different person today. That one unbearable garment was so much the antithesis of who I was, that wearing it ate at my self-confidence until I had none. The other children had no need for me in their little cliques formed so many months before. And I had no dazzling wit with which to prove them wrong.
Funny how ten years later, I was still that little girl inside, wearing the wrong shirt, lacking the confidence to engage those around me. I was now free to dress myself, and had learned to choose carefully, but the years of childhood take more of a toll on us than we think. Inside the aging bodies, we are always the child.
All of that flashed through my mind as I stood in the doorway and surveyed the classroom where all new employees met for orientation on their first day. I envied the knots of people that had already gathered, fast friends in their new world. Skirting the crowd, I snagged a cup of coffee and found a seat in the front. Up there I wouldn’t have to see the mass of people who couldn’t care less about me.
Five minutes before the start, a man stopped in front of me, tall and tan and blond. “Is this seat taken?” He gestured to my right, his blue eyes locking with mine.
Somehow managing not to drop my coffee in surprise, I shook my head. Behind us, most of the seats us were filled. That explained it. In my experience, people only sat up front if they had to.
“I’m probably going to embarrass myself,” he said.
Was he talking to me? I looked up at him. Yes. “Why’s that?” I asked, willing in vain for a blush not to creep into my cheeks.
“Are you by any chance Melanie Seymour?”
My jaw dropped.
“I thought so,” he said, smiling. “I’m John Akers. We were in sixth grade together before my family moved to Georgia.” When I didn’t respond, he must have worried that he was mistaken. “Wasn’t that you? You came into Mrs. Grayson’s class near the end of the year, right?”
He remembered me? John Akers. He’d been one of the golden children around whom others circled like electrons, unable to escape his orbit. And he remembered me. And had actually chosen to talk to me. “Yes,” I finally blurted, feeling more like a brain-dead idiot by the minute. Forcing out a smile, I said, “Hi.” I took his outstretched hand and shook it firmly.
The instructor moved to the front of the classroom and cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s get started.” He dimmed the lights and pulled up a PowerPoint presentation on the screen.
John leaned over and whispered in my ear. “We should go to lunch and catch up.”
I smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
And inside, that little girl threw off the damned ruffled shirt and did cartwheels through the grass.