“Better to have to retrace your steps and then move forward than never to move forward at all.” ― Anne Burack Sayre, The Birthday Book Club Snatching: The Melinda & Simon Series
I promised, not too long ago, that I’d tell you a bit more about “Cheryl T,” the cute auburn-haired girl who sat two – or was it three? – desks away from mine, third row from the front – in Ms. Cynthia Turtletaub’s third grade class at Coral Park Elementary School in unincorporated Dade County a half century ago. She was – for an all-too-brief time – my first girlfriend, and the first American girl who ever kissed me, albeit on the cheek and not, sadly, on the lips.
Around this time – late October/early November of 1972 – I was nine-going-on-10 (a bit older than the average third-grader, I think) and was still trying to be “more American” and learn English five months after Mom and I – later followed by my reluctant half-sister Vicky – returned to my birthplace city after a half-decade’s sojourn in Bogota, Colombia.
I have only fragmentary memories of my short stint as a student at Coral Park Elementary, which was the closest public primary school to our new home at 1001 SW 102nd Avenue. I can remember waking up around 6:30 AM on school days, eating the prepared-by-mom breakfast at the kitchen table, showering, getting dressed for school, and being driven by Mom in her green Volkswagen Golf car to school so I’d be there before Ms. Turtletaub took the roll at 8 AM sharp.
I also recall being surprised at first by the daily ritual of rising from our desk seats upon hearing the “To the Colors” bugle call, listening to the solemn strains of “The Star Spangled Banner,” then reciting the Pledge of Allegiance which would, for the next 11 years, be part of the school day from my ingress into the Dade County Public Schools system until my graduation from South Miami High School 11 years later. I became accustomed to this ritual, but at the time, it was a new experience for me.
“Love is hard to find, hard to keep, and hard to forget.”― Alysha Speer
I wish I could remember when, exactly, I first noticed the pretty girl who looked like the young actor Suzanne Crough from The Partridge Family. It might have been on the very first day of the school year and my first official day of life as a Dade County Public Schools “pupil.”
Or it might have been late in September or early October; I was shy and usually tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone except for Ms. Turtletaub, the teacher with whom I interacted with the most but never quite understood. Mostly because of the language barrier between us, but also because I had “immigrant’s paranoia” and believed that she did not like me because I didn’t speak English and was having trouble keeping up with both class assignments and homework.
In any case, it hardly matters when I noticed Cheryl. What does matter is that one day, out of the blue, I saw her as we lined up dutifully by the door of Coral Park Elementary’s Classroom E-13 – boys on one side, girls on the other – to march quietly to the cafeteria for lunch.
I still recall how pretty she looked that day, clad in a cute blue-and-white gingham dress that came down to just above her knees, with white shoes and cute pink socks. She had long auburn hair that cascaded to her shoulders, and – like most “gingers” – she had pale skin sprinkled with cute freckles. She also had green eyes – I remember those quite well, for some reason – and she had a lovely smile, too.
See, I never was the kind of boy who thought girls were “yucky” or strange beings to be shunned. After all, I lived in a house that was a small matriarchy, and I had already had a crush – unrequited, I am sure – on a girl at Bogota’s Colegio El Nogal, so the whole “Girls have cooties!” and “Ew, you like girls?” bullshit was not a thing with me.
I don’t remember if I had a lot of interactions with Cheryl at the start of the 1972-73 school year. It’s not likely that I did; as I mentioned earlier, even though I was trying hard to learn English as quickly as possible, my vocabulary was still not up to the task of having a normal conversation, much less an attempt to start a “relationship” with a girl, even though at the time such an endeavor fell into the category of “puppy love” and not, ahem, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
“Love, it never dies. It never goes away, it never fades, so long as you hang on to it. Love can make you immortal” ― Gayle Forman, If I Stay
What I do remember about Cheryl during the brief time that I was at Coral Park Elementary (early September to November 10, 1972) can fit in a thimble:
- She was pretty
- She was quiet and shy
- She was one of two girls in Ms. Turtletaub’s third grade class named Cheryl. She was Cheryl T. on the class roster sheet where we would paste gold, silver, or bronze stars that our teacher awarded for good behavior or outstanding classwork. The other girl was “Cheryl A.”
- She sat several desks away from mine on the third row from the front, and although I tried hard not to, sometimes I’d glance surreptitiously in her direction to catch a quick glimpse
- She was kind and gentle
“Writers remember everything…especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.
Art consists of the persistence of memory.”― Stephen King, Misery
I still have one more Tempus Fugit piece about my short-lived stay at Coral Park Elementary (I tend to like writing these around anniversaries for some reason), so I’ll save my most vivid – and bittersweet – reminiscences about Cheryl T. for that one.
I will say this, though: of all the students in Ms. Turtletaub’s class for the 1972-73 school year, Cheryl is the only one I can still pick out from our official “class photo” that we received when our parents bought our photos in September of 1972 and received a few weeks later. I have that – it’s really a collection of thumbnail-sized versions of individual portraits rather than a traditional group shot – in a box somewhere.
She made an indelible impression; I can tell you that much.