Last Time, on Remembering Cheryl T…..
“You can love someone so much…But you can never love people as much as you can miss them.” ― John Green
“There’s no love like the first.” ― Nicholas Sparks
When I was nine years old and a third-grader at Coral Park Elementary School, I fell in love with a classmate, a lovely girl that I only knew as “Cheryl T.” because that’s how she was listed on our class roster in Ms. Cynthia Turtletaub’s classroom. This was 50 years ago, and even though in the intervening span of time between Then and Now I’ve fallen in love with, or at least been intimate with – five other women and been attracted to many others, Cheryl T still haunts my dreams even though we never had a chance to know each other well.
As I recall, Cheryl was a slender nine-year-old girl with long, straight auburn hair that fell past her shoulders, a fair complexion sprinkled with freckles, and a sweet smile that hinted at a kind, gentle, even loving personality. If I had to compare her looks to a celebrity – just to give you some idea of why she made such a strong impression on nine-year-old me – the late Partridge Family actor Suzanne Crough (who played Tracy Partridge, Shirley Partridge’s younger daughter and the “baby” of the family) and a young Diane Lane – as seen in 1979’s A Little Romance – bear a striking resemblance to Cheryl.
In our classroom, Room E-13 at Coral Park Elementary School, there were, weirdly enough, two boys named Alex: on the roster, I was listed as “Alex D.” The other fellow was listed as “Alex R.” Likewise, we also had two girls named Cheryl: “Cheryl A.” was a blonde who was, as I recall, a bit too aware that boys liked her. And, of course, there was Cheryl T, whose last name (I found out several years afterward when I was about to transition from sixth grade – which when I was in school was the last year of elementary – to seventh grade and start “junior high) was “Thigpen.”
The Pitfalls of Language Barriers
In the brief time that I attended Coral Park – I was only there from late August/early September (I forgot when, exactly, the 1972-1973 school year began.) until Friday, November 10, 1972 – I struggled both academically and, to a lesser degree, emotionally because as a recent returnee to the States after living for nearly six years in Bogota, Colombia, I only spoke un poquito de ingles. I had trouble doing both in-class work and homework, partly because of the language barrier, but mostly because Coral Park Elementary School, which which was 12 years old at the time, did not have a Special Education department for kids with disabilities. As a result, my grades were not as good as they might have been otherwise, and although I was not conscious of that at the time, it affected my emotional health.
“I admire people who dare to take the language, English, and understand it and understand the melody” – Maya Angelou
The language barrier also prevented me from quickly making friends with my fellow third-graders at Coral Park. My friends from my block on SW 102nd Avenue in the Coral Estates Park neighborhood of what was then called “Dade County” also attended Coral Park, or at least most of them did, yet – as I remember, anyway – none were in my classroom, and quite a few of the older ones were already in the fourth grade. Thus, socializing was far more difficult than it would have been had we never moved to Colombia in 1966 and simply stayed put in the house that Dad bought for us the year I was born – a 1,617-square-foot house on a 10,875 square-foot lot located at 911 S.W. 99th Place.
As a young boy, I wasn’t a naturally gregarious child, but I did like to make friends and hang out with them. On the street where Mom, my older half-sister Vicky, and I lived in 1972, I’d started making friends even when Mom and I still lived in a small apartment in nearby Sweetwater (see any of my Tempus Fugit posts from June, July or August, but this one, Tempus Fugit – Dog Days of Summer 1972 Edition: Those Long, Hot Sundays of Yesteryear is representative of stories about the move to Westchester from that awful apartment complex), but with the exception of a younger boy named Patrick Blanchard, all of them were bilingual and most, if not all, had Cuban-born parents.
At Coral Park Elementary School, the population mix included many Hispanic kids, but most of the students, as well as the faculty and staff, were anglophone Americans, or gringos, as my Colombian family members often called them. We were not encouraged to speak in castellano during class hours unless it was important, and since Coral Park did not have Special Ed or teacher’s aides to deal with a kid in my situation – both physically disabled and still struggling to learn English on the fly – my circle of friends in Room E-13 was insignificantly tiny.
Naturally, if making friends was difficult, imagine, Dear Reader, how challenging falling in love – or being infatuated, or having a crush on someone – was for me in the fall of 1972. I was already shy and a tad self-conscious about my mild case of cerebral palsy; not being able to talk to a girl in any context, but especially if I wanted to have a girlfriend, was an almost insurmountable obstacle.
Love does not appear with any warning signs. You fall into it as if pushed from a high diving board. No time to think about what’s happening. It’s inevitable. An event you can’t control. A crazy, heart-stopping, roller-coaster ride that just has to take its course.” ― Jackie Collins, Lucky
Compounding all this was the fact that even though I sat in the same row of desks as Cheryl T – middle row, third from either the front of the classroom or the back; I sat at the outermost student’s desk, while Cheryl T. sat three desks over to my right, close to the center of the row and with two other kids (one being a friend whose name I’ve forgotten, the other being a girl who is also “anonymous” in my memories) and saw her every school day, I did not realize (or want to admit to myself) that I had feelings for her until late October of 1972.
I was, compared to my 2022 middle-aged self, less shy and a bit more willing to express my feelings for someone of the opposite sex, especially if I somehow intuited that the feelings might be mutual.
So it came to pass that on the same week that Richard M. Nixon won a second term as President of the United States, actor Eric Dane was born, and the Navy’s top admiral, Elmo Zumwalt, criticized the service’s failure to eradicate racism and its effects on the careers of non-white Navy personnel, I threw caution to the wind and told Cheryl T, in a brief but heartfelt note, that I loved her.
Operation Love Sonnet, Part Two: Love Notes Surreptitiously Exchanged
So, Dear Reader, there I was, at my desk – one of those old-school wooden desks with a “flip top” that opened so we kids could put our textbooks and school notebooks, pens, pencils, and other stuff away and keep the desktop tidy and uncluttered during class – with half of my attention focused on Ms. Turtletaub’s lesson for the day, and the other half on the neatly folded piece of paper my next-desk neighbor had skillfully placed in my right hand.
As soon as the handover was done – it took only a fraction of a second from beginning to end, but since “passing notes in class” was a rule-breaking offense that could result in a scolding and/or a visit to the principal’s office, depending on how strict your teacher was or, more importantly, if you were a repeat offender, so fear of getting caught stretched time like three-D saltwater taffy and made it seem like an eternity – I noticed that my heart was pounding as if I’d run from the classroom to the front of the school, like I usually did once the school day ended and I had to go wait for either Mom or my half-sister to pick me up.
“She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not…”
Part of me wanted to unfold the sheet of notebook paper that bore, in a script that was both precise and feminine and written with one of those four-color BIC pens, this simple address:
To Alex D.
I didn’t listen to the inner voice that said, seductively and insistingly (in Spanish, of course, because my inner thoughts were in that language, unlike in the present), “Go on, read the note! Go on, unfold that piece of paper, and see what she says!”
“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.” ― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Trust me, there was nothing in the world that I wanted more at that moment – well, I wanted to hold Cheryl in my arms and kiss her, like the actors in movies such as Casablanca or TV shows like Love, American Style did to their “love interests – but even though I was not so strait-laced that I never got in trouble in school, ever, I usually toed the line and avoided egregious acts of misbehavior – including talking in class during a lesson or passing notes to another pupil.
So, no. I didn’t open Cheryl’s note right away. I placed the folded paper, with its To Alex D. address in green ink facing up, on the outermost edge of my desktop, where I could either glance down at it on occasion or, if I had to, carefully open the “lid” just enough to slip the note inside in case Ms. Turtletaub walked by and happened to look in my direction – and see a forbidden communication in my possession.
Time seemed to have somehow slowed to a crawl, a quirk of perception caused both by my inability to fully grasp what Ms. Turtletaub was lecturing about – the topic was the Presidential election, which had taken place 48 hours before on Tuesday, November 7, but I only understood that because she had written something like “PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS 1972!” – and my anxiety about what Cheryl’s response to my declaration of love – which she had received only minutes before she wrote back – might be.
But, as is its nature, time passed, and soon enough Ms. Turtletaub ended her grade-appropriate lesson on how elections work in the United States, the gist of which I’d have to get in the cafeteria from my Spanish-speaking classmates during lunch momentarily, since the clock indicated it was time to go to the classroom door in an orderly manner, line up in the hall outside Room E-13 in two columns – boys on one side, girls on the other – and walk quietly and at a brisk but orderly pace to the school cafeteria for our 30-minute lunch break.
I tucked Cheryl’s note – still carefully folded into a compact square – in my pocket, hoping it was a positive reply to mine, the note that I had laboriously copied from my friend’s “draft” the night before and said, Cheryl, I love you. (Signed) Alex. And, if my memories of how I behaved as a child at the time, it’s likely that I took my place in line with a smile on my face and thoughts of Cheryl flitting back and forth in my love-intoxicated mind.
Although the walk from Room E-13 to the school cafeteria, a spacious but noisy space lined with long cafeteria-style tables and metal folding chairs painted in “institutional gray” and bearing the stamp “Property of DCPS” on the back, was short, it felt like it took forever. We followed the same routine that we did at lunchtime – grabbed a tray at one end of the line, moved our way to where the cafeteria ladies served the meal of the day, then we’d go, food-laden tray in hand, and fork over our “lunch money (I think it was $1.25 per day in 1972) to the stern-looking cashier at the other end of the line, then carry our meal to one of the tables and eat it there.
Lunch, of course, was one of the few times when we kids could socialize during school hours – I think we might have also had a recess period, although I cannot remember for sure – and talk to our friends. And, even though I would go to different schools as I moved through the system and was promoted from primary to secondary school between the 1970s and early 1980s, the routine was the same: I’d hang out with a small group of kids, mostly boys, and talk about the latest TV shows, sports – yes, some of my friends were into NFL football, particularly in 1972, which coincided with the Miami Dolphins’ “Perfect Season” – and, yes, girls.
Of course, in early November of 1972, I could only speak to my bilingual friends, who seemed nice but were hoping that I’d “get with the program” and learn English quickly so they would not have to play the role of United Nations translators longer than necessary. I never heard any of them say anything mean to me on the subject, but I could read the impatience in some of the boys’ faces when I’d interrupt a particularly animated conversation and say, sotto voce, “Como? Que dice Ryan?”
In any event, while I can’t remember every detail of what happened on Thursday, November 9, and Friday, November 10, 1972 (for reasons that will become clear), I do remember that at some point during lunch on the ninth, I took the note Cheryl had written in class out from my pocket, and barely containing my excitement, unfolded it to its full A4 notebook style dimensions of 8.26 inches x 11.7 inches so I could read it.
My hands shook slightly as I undid the careful folds Cheryl had made, partly because of my cerebral palsy, which has a tendency to manifest itself with involuntary twitches when I’m either excited or stressed out. (In this case, I think it was a little bit of both.), and partly because I had not really considered a negative response to my note. Later, when rejection by women – both as a teenager and later in my 30s, 40s, and even 50s – became the norm, negative responses were expected as a matter of course. Not so during my first toe-dip into the world of love and relationships.
Only at the last minute before I read what Cheryl had written did I think, Oh, no, what if Cheryl doesn’t like me? When that stray first hint of self-doubt flashed in my nine-going-on-ten-year-old brain, my hands trembled, shaking the paper they held in a vise-like grip like a leaf falling in a stiff autumn breeze.
It took me a moment to calm down enough to read Cheryl’s response.
Like the address line on the reverse side of the ruled notebook paper, Cheryl wrote this simple, direct, and unforgettable note with almost perfect penmanship with the green ink of her BIC four-color pen:
I love you, too, Alex.
Unlike me, Cheryl already had learned a little cursive, so her signature was in that style of longhand.
Even though I was not a whiz in language arts at the time and my vocabulary was limited, I was studying English diligently every day, perusing my mom’s huge Perouse’s English-Spanish/Spanish-English dictionary and paying attention not just to definitions but pronunciation, synonyms, antonyms, and all that good dictionary stuff. “Too,” both the word and the meaning, was one of the first English language words I that learned while I was in that “prep” school in Hialeah for Spanish-speaking kids entering the Dade County Public Schools system for the first time. And, of course, I had learned the phrase I love you, Cheryl – and written it, so I understood what I love you, too meant without needing anyone to tell me.
I didn’t know a lot of American English slang then, but I did know Wow! I knew better than to shout it to the whole world – or, more accurately, half the student body of Coral Park Elementary School – but I thought it.
If I had been a fan of The Beatles at the time, the song that would have come to mind is She Loves You. Alas, Beatlemania would eventually become part of my life, as would the songs of Billy Joel, John Denver, and other acts that were popular in 1972, but that would not happen until much later when I had become more assimilated into American pop culture. I wasn’t yet into classical music, either, so I can’t claim with any degree of honesty that I heard music in my head when I read the phrase “I love you, too, Alex” over and over and over until it was engraved in my memory.
Wow. She loves me.
To Be Continued….
 At age nine, kissing was the only activity that I knew about when it came to romantic relationships between men and women. Later, of course, I learned a bit more about what goes on in bed besides kissing, but in 1972 I was totally innocent and naïve about such things.
 I had hoped that I could tell this story in a single blog post, but after spending 10 hours on yesterday’s post and not getting past a certain part of the story before I was forced – by eyestrain, physical exhaustion, and a few instances where the emotional content of what I was writing reduced me, literally, to tears – to stop writing and just publish the post, I had to break Remembering Cheryl T: 50 Years Later into a multi-part saga. I did not plan it this way, and I wish that I had been able to keep this story “short and sweet,” but the topic of my first experience of young, innocent-yet-romantic love just could not be told quickly or succinctly. (I spent four and a half hours on this post, and I’m physically and emotionally drained.)
I hope that I will be able to complete this tale tomorrow with Part Three. However, not only am I having a hard time coping with my own emotional responses to what I am writing, but I am also looking at an unexpected life-altering change in the not-too-distant future which is, quite frankly, unsettling, to put it mildly. It’s hard to write “quickly and succinctly” when you’re suddenly feeling tears well up and flow down your cheeks and you stifle your sobs so that you’re not accused of being “melodramatic.” My plan is to wrap up this unplanned series tomorrow and then move on to other topics that are less emotionally charged. Let’s all hope that I can make it so.
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