Last Time, on Remembering Cheryl T….
“Some wounds never show, not even in the mirror, until we see them in the expressions on the faces of people we love.” ― Cameron Jace, Cinderella Dressed in Ashes
What Came Before: Some Necessary Exposition
In 1972, the same year that saw the release of The Godfather, an assassination attempt on one Presidential candidate, the “Spring Offensive” of the still-festering Vietnam War, the Watergate break-in which eventually led to Richard Nixon’s downfall, the terrorist act that marred the Summer Olympics in Munich, and the last Apollo manned landing on the Moon, I experienced my first experience of young, innocent love – and my first heartbreak – in the short span of two days.
It was the second week of November, and I was a student – or, in academic terms, a “pupil” – in Ms. Cynthia Turtletaub’s third-grade class at Coral Park Elementary School in Westchester, an unincorporated suburb of Miami, Florida.
Because my mother, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, and I had only been back in South Florida less than six months after living in Bogota, Colombia, for nearly six years, I was still at an awkward stage in my academic life: I was nine going on 10, which is a bit older than the average third-grader but still within the norm, and I was, by all accounts, intelligent and studious despite having an undiagnosed learning disability and an aversion to doing homework, especially if it required writing stuff in longhand.
I’d attended school in Colombia; from pre-K to a half-year in the third grade, I went to Colegio El Nogal, a smallish private Catholic school that was owned and operated by a friend of my mom’s and affiliated with the Archdiocese of Bogota. I don’t remember how good a student I was there; I was an average student who did well in some classes and poorly in others but performed adequately enough to be promoted from grade to grade and, on occasion, win medals – yes, actual medals – for academic achievements.
If I had not had a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after my ninth birthday two months into the second half of the 1971-1972 school year, it’s unlikely that my Mom and I – later joined by my reluctant and resentful half-sister Vicky – would have left Bogota 50 years ago. Mom was in the hospitality business and had co-owned two restaurants (La Rueda and La Codorniz), and we lived in a nice apartment in Chapinero, a ritzy neighborhood in the northern section of the bustling metropolis.
But I did have that brain bleed not long after my ninth birthday in March of ‘72 – I don’t remember when, but it could not have been more than a week after the big day – and I left Colegio El Nogal without even getting to say goodbye to the few friends that I had made there. And if I had had a lot of time in which to think about the real-life consequences of my moving back to my city of birth, I would have been a lot sadder about not seeing my El Nogal classmates again.
As I wrote in the blog for Cerebral Palsy Guidance some years ago:
For me, the first few months back in the U.S. were a mix of excitement, boredom, sadness, and fear. I liked the idea of returning to my hometown and liked the warm climate more than I did Bogota’s cold mountain chills. I also loved getting acquainted with color TVs (which Colombia didn’t have until 1980 or so), ice cream trucks, playing outdoors on long, hot summer evenings, and making new friends.
However, I had forgotten whatever English I’d learned as a toddler before we’d moved to South America in ’66. I’d taken mandatory English classes at the private school I attended in Colombia, but my vocabulary was rudimentary (“A is for apple, B is for boat…”).
So even though I had been born in Miami and carried a U.S. passport, for all intents and purposes, I was a new immigrant. As such, I often felt like a fish out of water. And sometimes (more times than I even cared to admit to myself), I was scared.
After we moved to the house in Westchester, my mom enrolled me at Coral Park Elementary School, one of eight such schools in that part of South Florida. Built in the early 1960s, Coral Park was only five blocks away, and I could walk home if an adult accompanied me. It was bigger and airier than the school I’d left behind in Bogota, with open spaces between the various wings and a huge cafeteria. There were more kids there, too, and the faculty included a few men, which was not the case in El Nogal Catholic School.
Ideally, I should have attended Coral Park from 1972 till 1975; I was in third grade when we left Colombia, and the child psychologist who evaluated me before I started school told Mom I would do fine in school once I learned English. From there, my path would have taken me to Rockway Junior High, and then on to Coral Park Senior High.
Spoiler Alert: Things did not go the way they should have.
The Fragility of Memory Rears Its Ugly Head, or: An Imperfect Historical Account
In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along – Billy Joel, And So it Goes
At the beginning of this story, I shared with you some observations about the fragility and, most importantly, imperfections of human memory. As much as we like to think that our memories of the past are accurate, true-to-life, and can often be retrieved as if they were Word documents saved in the “cloud,” this is an illusion.
The human brain is a complex, wondrous thing, capable of creating beautiful works of art, inventing technical marvels that our ancestors would consider to be magical tools, and exploring the heights, depths, and widths of not just our planet but the Universe as well. But it does not create an accurate, down-to-the-last detail record of every deed (or misdeed) we have done or every word we’ve both said and done. The brain, as marvelous an organ as it is, is also fragile and can be damaged by physical injuries, disease, or substance abuse.
Consequently, the ability to remember past events is likewise limited and unreliable, so we can’t take our memories, vivid as they might be, as personal gospels. The passage of time, physical and emotional trauma, lifestyle choices, state of mental health, and countless other variables affect our ability to remember past events.
1972 was a half-century ago. I was nine-going-on-10 in early November of a year in which I’d seen my life turned upside down – and inside out – just three months into the New Year, and I had to adjust not just to day-to-day life in a city with a different climate from the one I had lived for nearly six years, but also to a country where I barely spoke the dominant language – English – and had to start the process of making friends and getting used to a totally different educational system than the one I’d left behind that spring.
The second school week of November 1972 is a confusing fugue of memories, some so vivid that I swear they were perfectly recorded by some infernal and internal device in my brain designed to replay them when I’m particularly vulnerable because of the pain they inflict on middle-aged me. Others, especially the ones that help me find the “historical context” or, as my journalism teacher at South Miami High taught us who wrote for the school newspaper, the elements of the What, Who, Where, When, Why, and How (5 Ws & H) formula for news writing, are foggy, less clear.
The blurry memories – the Big Picture reasons that explain why I left Coral Park Elementary School for the last time on the afternoon of Friday, November 10, 1972 – are the most frustrating for me, particularly because since I was nine-going-on-10 and was powerless to alter anything, and also because I never got a reliable account of my transfer from Coral Park Elementary to Tropical Elementary – a move that I was not happy with at the time, and one that left an emotional wound that never quite healed.
Since I’ve already “given away the ending” I will dispense with the history-as-I-know-it part of this story by quoting, once again, from my Cerebral Palsy Guide blog post from March of 2016:
in 1972, Coral Park Elementary did not have a Special Education department equipped to deal with kids with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Furthermore, my third-grade teacher and I didn’t quite click. I wasn’t a rowdy kid, and I don’t recall being disrespectful toward her, but I seemed to annoy her, and, well, something happened.
I’m not sure what occurred; the passage of time has obliterated almost all my memories of my two-and-a-half-month stint at Coral Park. All I recall is that my mom was summoned for a teacher-parent conference in the principal’s office. I wasn’t present – but when my teacher and mom emerged, I was told that I was going to attend a new school that would be better for me.
I was stunned by this unexpected turn of events.
Sure, I had noticed that school in the U.S. was hard to adjust to, especially since I was still only beginning to learn English. (If memory serves, Coral Park had no English as a Second Language class, and the only way I knew what went on in class was because a few of my friends were Cuban-American and tried to translate whenever they could.)
I also couldn’t do much homework yet; my penmanship was awful, and I didn’t perform well in math class. Clearly, I needed more help and attention than my Coral Park teacher could give me. And because Tropical Elementary had a large Special Education department with experienced teachers, I was transferred there.
The news that I was going to attend Tropical Elementary hit me like a bag of ice thrown at my face. I had a crush (my first) on a pretty girl with long (auburn) hair named Cheryl. By a sad twist of fate, on the day of the parent-teacher conference, I had finally summoned the courage to write (with help from one of my few friends) a little note with the words “I love you, Cheryl” and hand it to her during recess. Sadder still – she sent me a note that read,
“I love you, too, Alex.”
I wish I could tell you, Dear Reader, that I remember the “what did I know and when did I know it” part the story of why I had to go from Coral Park – three minutes away from home by car, 19 minutes or more away on foot – to Tropical Elementary, which was far enough away to need to be bussed there.
The cold, hard truth is, of course, that I can’t. I might have been told as early as a week prior to Election Week 1972, or on the eve of my last day at Coral Park, Thursday, November 9, right after the exchange of love notes that I’ve chronicled here and here.
The Girl in the Pink Sweater
“We’ve been through a lot, and though many of the wounds have healed, the scars they’ve left behind still throb every now and then.” ― Neha Yazmin, Someone Like You
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
What I do remember with a reasonable amount of clarity – as well as verisimilitude – is that Friday, November 10, 1972, was one of those rare South Florida days when fall makes its presence known by way of a cold front that clears the skies of all but those wispy, ice-crystalline cirrus clouds that look like delicate white feathers set upon a beautiful dome of cerulean blue high above the ground. It was cold, and even though the sun was up and above the horizon when my mother – who drove a green Volkswagen Golf at the time – drove me to school, there was a fine layer of fog that was only then beginning to burn off.
I remember that it was bone-chillingly cold because of all the 30-plus students in Ms. Cynthia Turtletaub’s third-grade class in Room E-13, I was the only one without either a sweater or a jacket. I don’t remember whether I’d bothered to choose a button-down shirt or a pullover with long sleeves – I might have worn a T-shirt for all I know – but I do remember that it was cold that day, and even though each classroom had a heater and we were warm inside, the temperature outside was, at best, in the high 60s, which by South Florida standards is “Sweater Weather.”
I don’t know why I wasn’t properly attired for the cold snap. Maybe Mom and I had not watched the news the night before and missed the weather forecast. Or maybe I had been told, as I wrote in my Cerebral Palsy Guidance post six years ago, that this was going to be my last day at Coral Park Elementary School and was so upset that I would be separated from Cheryl T that I didn’t care what clothes I picked out in the morning before heading out to school.
In the end, the reasons don’t matter. The result is that I went to school on that beautiful November Friday morning without a jacket or a light sweater.
In one of those “it only happens in the movies” quirks of fate, Mom had dropped me off at school so early that a few of us students, including Cheryl T, arrived on campus while the classrooms were still locked. The sun was well above the horizon and the mist was beginning to burn away, so there were sharp contrasts of light and shadow, with the rising sun “behind” the west-facing façade of the school overlooking SW 97th Avenue bathing everything in warm golden light, while huge trees that are no longer there cast giant shadows over the front lawn and sidewalk and past the center of the busy avenue.
Even though the sun was shining, the air was nippy. It had been a while since I’d left Bogota, which is usually chilly because it sits on a plateau 8,661 feet above sea level, so I was used to chilly weather there and was properly acclimated. But after six or so months in the subtropical clime of South Florida, even temperatures in the low 70s and high 60s were incredibly chilly, and normally I’d wear a jacket or sweater to deal with that.
So, I stood there in the early morning light, shivering as though I’d never experienced cold weather in my life, and feeling miserable. I thought,” When is Ms. Turtletaub going to get here? I’m freezing!”
As I stood there, my eyes noticed someone moving toward me. I couldn’t see who it was because of the way the row of classrooms was arrayed, I was now facing east toward the sun, so I could only see that the person walking toward me was not the tall, slender, and strict-looking Ms. Turtletaub.
The figure drew closer to me and stepped out of the golden halo of sunshine and onto the corridor, I saw that it wasn’t Ms. Turtletaub, another teacher, or even my mom. It was an auburn-haired girl, about my height, clad in blue jeans, a white blouse with long sleeves, white sneakers with either blue or black trim, and pink socks that matched the pink sweater she was wearing on this cold but beautiful morning.
It was Cheryl T., the girl of my dreams who sat three desks away from my own and had, only one day before, told me – in writing, at that, that she loved me. And now, for the first time since the school year started, there we were, just the two of us, standing outside a still not-open-for-school classroom because our parents had dropped us off on campus a bit too early.
“Hi, Alex,” Cheryl said in a quiet, shy voice.
Luckily, “Hi” was part of my still limited vocabulary in American English, so I was able to reply. “Hi, Cheryl. How…are…you…this…morning?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Cheryl said. “It’s cold today, though.”
“Yes, it’s cold,” I agreed.
Cheryl smiled at me, but then she looked at me closely and saw that I didn’t have either a sweater or jacket and that I had my arms crossed in front of me to keep warm. The smile vanished and was replaced by a furrowed brow and a worried air.
“No jacket?” she said, looking a bit flustered. “it’s really cold. Not good for you, Alex.”
I understood the “no jacket part” of Cheryl’s comment, but I had no way of explaining – without one of my bilingual friends to translate – that I had left my chilly weather garb at home and that I had no idea Mom would drop me off so early. “Lo siento mucho,” I said in my Colombian-accented Spanish, then I remembered that I knew its English equivalent, “I’m sorry.”
My girlfriend of just one day gave me a look that seemed to say, “What am I going to do with you?” Then her expression softened, and her smile returned to its proper place.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. Just…stand there a second. You need to stay warm, though….”
As I stood there, Cheryl gave me a quick hug, then stepped back a few steps, her eyes fixed on me. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, Cheryl straightened up and unbuttoned her pink sweater. Even though it was cold and her blouse was made from the same material as my shirt, she doffed the sweater and held it out to me.
I must have shaken my head or made another gesture of protest because Cheryl looked at me sternly and handed me the sweater.
Knowing that I didn’t speak English fluently but intuiting that I understood body language, Cheryl mimicked someone putting on a sweater. She did this once, twice, and when she saw that I was reluctant to don the sweater – I didn’t want her to get cold, either – she did the Marcel Marceau bit one more time. “It’s cold, sweetie. Please, Alex, put it on,” Cheryl said.
I wanted nothing more in the world but to please her – and see her smile again – so I nodded in assent, took the sweater from her hands, and put it on, clumsily and with some effort because I was cold and nervous. It felt soft, warm, and smelled lightly like lilacs – not exactly a manly scent, to be sure – and it was the nicest thing that had happened to me at Coral Park since the beginning of the school year.
Cheryl did smile at me, and even though – unlike the movies – she did not kiss me, she did take my hand in hers, partly for mutual warmth, but mostly because at that moment, she loved me, and I loved her, and everything was right with the world.
The Wound Time Never Healed: A Letter to My First Love
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most:
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” Canto XXVII
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”― Kahlil Gibran
It’s been 50 years and six days since I saw you outside by the entrance of Coral Park Elementary School at the end of the school day when I took off the pink sweater you loaned me on that cold, chilly day in November and handed it back to you. I don’t know if you remember that, or if you remember me with any fondness. I mean, you printed your name and phone number on the envelope with our midsemester grades inside so I could call you on the telephone and talk, make plans to do things together and still be “a couple” even if you were at Coral Park Elementary and I was at my new school, Tropical.
I had your number. You wrote it down for me, and I promised that I would call you as soon as I could that weekend, even if it were just to say, “Hi, I love you!” – hoping that as time went on my English would improve and eventually, brief exchanges would evolve into longer, more meaningful ones. I remember all too well that I stuffed the envelope into my jeans pocket, making sure that it was still there every so often as I walked home from school, for the very first time, with a gaggle of friends while you waited in front of the school for your mom to pick you up.
I arrived home safe, and so did the envelope with the only grade report card I ever received at Coral Park and your phone number written on the front. But I never called. Not that weekend, I like I promised I would, or the next, or the next one after that. You loaned me your sweater, gave me two hugs – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – a kiss (on the cheek, but still a kiss), and you soaked my shoulder with tears as we said “Goodbye, I love you” to each other.
From me, you only got – silence.
I know you won’t believe me – I know if the situation had been reversed and I’d given my number to a (girl then, a woman now) and she never called and left me hanging for days with no explanation, then 50 years later she showed up at my door (or more plausibly, my Facebook page) and said “Er, Alex, honey, how are you? Listen, babe, I meant to call you, but this happened….” I would probably not believe her, either – but I always meant to call you.
I remember that I got home tired and sad after a long walk with a bunch of our fellow Wildcats from Coral Park, dispersing in dribs and drabs along the route that led from the school to my block on SW 102nd Avenue. I was tired not just from the walk – which was, at the time, the longest walk I’d attempted without adult supervision – but also from the long day at school and the anxiety I felt knowing that I was going to another school, leaving you behind at Coral Park. The “sad” part, well, you can guess why I was sad.
I distinctly remember digging into my jeans pocket and extracting the now somewhat wrinkled grade report envelope made of a manila-like material – you know, like those tabs in library books where they stick the “return by X-date” cards, or used to, anyway, when we were kids – and handing it to my mom with the admonition, “Please don’t lose this; Cheryl wrote her phone number down on it.” (Mom knew all about you; I never kept secrets from her, at least not when I was nine, and once I knew I loved you, or had a crush on you, or liked you, or whatever term you want to apply, it was All Cheryl, All the Time.)
I’m going to be sixty next March – a fact that I am having trouble getting used to, by the by – so I have a tough time remembering details from the past. There are many gaps in my memory not just about the Big Picture reasons why I had to leave Coral Park – other than the generic “Oh, you were having trouble in school at Coral Park, so we transferred you to Tropical because it was a better fit for you blah blah blah” – but also (as my creative writing prof used to say) “concrete details” about our last day together, such as it was.
That having been said, there are details of that long-ago day (when you cried on my shoulder because I had to start heading back home and you had to wait at school for your mom and couldn’t walk with me….and after that, you hugged me so hard it hurt…and kissed me…once….on the cheek) that I can’t forget. (And trust me, I’ve tried to. And I’ve almost succeeded…except this year, which is the 50th anniversary of our brief time together.)
One of the clearest memories that I have from 1972 is when my mom handed me the envelope and said, “Please put it on top of the refrigerator, honey; I’m about to make dinner right now. I’ll look at it later. And don’t worry about your grades – they’ll get better once you are in a school where they can spend more time helping you with your English.”
So, Cheryl, the last time I saw the envelope with my midterm report still inside and your handwritten name and number on one side was when I stood on my tiptoes and gingerly placed it atop our General Electric refrigerator on the night of November 10, 1972. After that, I don’t know what my mom did with it once she read my report card. It wasn’t as though she had to sign it and send it back to Ms. Turtletaub the following Monday, right?
The next day, which was a Saturday, I woke up late, as was my habit on weekends. As soon as I washed up before breakfast, I asked Mom where the envelope with the report card was. I wanted to call you at noon to say hi – because, really, that’s as much as I could say unless I had an intermediary who spoke English to help me talk to you – and she said, “Oh, I have it in my room, but I’ll give it to you later”
Well, later became never, because Mom didn’t give me the envelope with your number – which is what I wanted; the report card itself meant nothing to me, but your number meant the world to me. To this day, 50 years after the event and seven years after my mother died, I never discovered what happened to the envelope or why my mother, who was my best friend ever, would deliberately withhold your phone number from me, especially since she knew that I was fond of you.
I suppose that if Mom purposely disposed of that envelope with your number, she probably thought she had a good reason. I can’t imagine what that reason might have been, though. She was not opposed to me liking girls or having a girlfriend even though I was nine-going-on-10; when I (on the rebound, obviously) met the girl who became my second girlfriend not long after I started school at Tropical, she didn’t object or say, “Kids your age can’t have girlfriends and kiss; wait till you’re older!” On the contrary, she drove me to her house, introduced herself to her parents, and she would drop me off until it was time for the agreed-upon pickup time.
And since she never met or even saw you from a distance, I seriously doubt that she disliked you. Mom had flaws, just like I do, but she was not unreasonable or irrational when it came to deciding who I could or could not be with. Even later in life when my relationships involved intimacy, Mom never tried to dissuade me from being with someone even if she thought I had chosen poorly. So, I don’t believe that she did not like you; she never interacted with you, so she had nothing on which to base an informed choice.
Maybe she thought it would be impossible for you and me to be “us” if we were in different schools and had to deal with the temptation of other potential partners on campus – you were in Coral Park, and I was in Tropical. Maybe she figured that one of us – either you or me, I don’t know – might hurt the other if we met someone else in one of our classes and fell in love with that person. The sad thing about that is that she might have been right; for less than a week later, even though I cried a lot on the weekend that the phone number somehow got lost and thought the world had ended, I met a girl, “K”, out on the PE field, and maybe partly out of loneliness, and partly because she was pretty, nice, and a good kisser, I asked her to be my girlfriend.
The weird thing is that even though I really loved “K” and “went steady” with her for four and a quarter years – which is the shelf life of my long-term relationships – I don’t think I totally got over you, Cheryl. Ever.
It’s strange. I never really got to know the real you at all; I didn’t get to know what music you liked, or what TV shows you watched. If you had a complete set of parents or if you lived in a single-parent household. Did you have pets? Do you like sports? Were you a tomboy? Were you a reader, like me, or did you prefer playing board games or collecting Barbies or other toys? What was your favorite food in the world when you were nine? I never found out what your favorite color was, although I do remember that you favored clothes that had either blue or pink.
And yet…of all my heartbreaks, and every single relationship I’ve had since I met you in Ms. Turtletaub’s class has involved heartbreak in one way or another, losing you 24 hours after we exchanged those notes in class hurts the most mainly because while we didn’t have a relationship, the promise of one was there. We just didn’t have the chance to see it through.
I should let you know that even though I moved on and pursued several relationships over the past 50 years, part of me still regrets that I never tried to contact you in the five years that I lived in Westchester. Adult me, 59-going-on-60-year-old me, sometimes rational me knows that once my mom lost – or threw away – that envelope with your name and number on it, I had no uncomplicated way to get a hold of you. All I had, really, was a tiny thumbnail of your official class picture in the “group collage” we all got when we brought our packets of school portraits home in…October, was it…. your first name, and the first letter of your last name, T.
I did, unbelievably, try to find you through at least two kids that I knew from Coral Park and who were still there when we were at the elementary school level. One girl whose dad was a friend of my mother swore that she knew who you were, that your last name was Tecano, and that since you were not held back academically as I had been, you were at least one school grade ahead of me. (This was in 1976, the year we both turned 13, so if this was true, you were already at Rockway Junior High while I was still in sixth grade at Tropical.)
This girl was not a friend of yours, or so she claimed, otherwise I would have asked her to tell you what happened regarding the phone number incident and that I was sorry I had never called. By then, of course, I was going steady – as we used to say then – with “K.” and would not have considered cheating on her, but I would have wanted you to know that I had wanted to call you like I promised, but fate intervened.
Still later, when I no longer lived in Westchester but was still close to the Coral Park area, I was visiting the old neighborhood and recognized one of the kids from our classroom. In fact, he was the boy who facilitated the exchange of love notes that we made 50 years ago last week. One thing led to another and 15-year-old me, or maybe 16-year-old me, asked him if he remembered you.
He nodded and said, “Yeah, I remember the girl you liked when you were in our class.”
“Well, can you tell me what her last name was, cos I only knew her as Cheryl T.”
Our former classmate – I have forgotten his name now – nodded again. “Yeah. It was Thigpen. She got teased a lot for that though….kids used to call her ‘Cheryl Pigpen.’ Cruel, but kids are like that, y’know? Cruel. I don’t know what happened to her after Coral Park though, but she was kind of cute.”
So, yeah. I did ask about you, and if I had somehow been able to get a hold of you, I would have. If nothing else, just to say I was sorry for not calling you and disappointing you the way I must have.
Cheryl, I don’t know if I loved you in any meaningful way when we were kids. I don’t think I understood what “love” meant in the context of interpersonal relationships that went beyond just friends or blood relations. Like I said, we didn’t even get to know each other to see how far that attraction between us went, right? We never got to spend time together, not even on a date with a chaperone present.
And yet, the facts that I truly believed I loved you, that I grieved openly for days and – obviously – subconsciously still feel the loss of what might have been, added to the other fact that I regret hurting you in some way by not keeping my promise…all of that tells me that you mattered to me so damn much when I was nine that I still remember you as my first girlfriend, even if it was just for 24 hours.
As Billy Joel wrote in a song he wrote in 1983, the same year that I graduated from high school:
I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretense
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self-defense
And every time I’ve held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you, soon, I suppose
Cheryl, I can’t say that I love you, even though sometimes it feels as though I do, but I have never forgotten your kind, sweet, gentle personality. And as long as my mind is sharp and not diminished by the ravages of dementia or other illnesses that affect memory, I’ll always remember you as the pretty girl who loaned me her pink sweater on a cold November morning in Miami, Florida.
I hope you’ve led a happy and fulfilling life. Take care, okay?
 Growing Up with Cerebral Palsy – Part Three of a Series, March 13, 2016, Cerebral Palsy Guidance blog
 Incidentally, this was one of the last blog posts that I wrote while I was still living in Miami.
 In the Cerebral Palsy Guide blog post, I wrote that Cheryl T had “brown” hair. It was not. It was a softer shade of red-brown.
 Another bit of inconsistent detail, but that’s because I had a deadline to meet and had a totally different mindset because I was in love and my life seemed to be sorting itself out in the wake of Mom’s death the previous summer. Cerebral Palsy Guidance only required the “Big Picture” story for its blog, and I did not want to linger in that vestibule of my Hall of Remembrance if you catch my drift.
 The reader is urged to keep in mind that my nine-year-old self tended to see people and events in the context of what I perceived was going on at the time, regardless of whether those perceptions were accurate or not. For instance, I did not have the ability to understand Ms. Turtletaub verbally because of the language barrier, and because I was both frustrated with that aspect of my life in school and had an overactive sense that life was unfair and cruel, I tended to see certain individuals in black-and-white terms that did not accurately fit the person or the situation. Thus, in 1972, and even for a few years afterward, in my immature and unwise years, Ms. Turtletaub was the cause of all my woes, especially my separation from Cheryl T.
I mention this because 10 school years later, I went on what I call a “grand tour” of the stations of my life as a pupil in the Dade County Public School system in which, along with my friend Bruce Schulman (who had a car) I visited every one of the schools I had attended from 1972 to 1983. Setting out from South Miami Senior High, Bruce and I stopped first at the twin campuses of Tropical Elementary and Riviera Junior High School, where classes were either winding down or still in session, depending on the school. I remember chatting with the two librarians that I liked the most at Riviera, and I told them I’d been on the school paper and yearbook staff in high school. I probably talked to a few other teachers, including Ms. Heller, the journalism teacher whose class I was not in but who still accepted a couple of story submissions for one issue of the Riviera school paper.
I then walked over to next-door Tropical Elementary – in those pre-Columbine High shooting days you could drop by any of your schools and pay short visits to see friends who still were there as students or say hi to former teachers without having to go through security checkpoints or wear visitor’s passes. At Tropical, the school where I spent the most time – five school years – I visited Mr. Back (pronounced “Bach,” like the composer), the music teacher who started working there when I was in sixth grade and set up the school’s first choral group, which I was a member of.
I wasn’t planning on visiting Coral Park. I had associated it with so many bad emotions – frustration, resentment, confusion, and sadness – that I had never set foot anywhere near the campus. I could never avoid seeing it from a car whenever I happened to be going from my house – which after 1978 was on the NW side of the same road – to somewhere else and back along SW 97th Avenue. And even though I did not do it every time I passed in front of Coral Park Elementary, sometimes I’d say to whoever was driving, “Hey, I used to go to school there.” I’d say it in a casual or matter-of-fact tone, but I always felt sad, especially when the school still had the 1972-era color scheme and the big trees on the front lawn were still there.
But when Bruce, who knew I’d gone to Coral Park – “Home of the Wildcats!” – because we had talked about it a few times, asked me if I wanted to go there before he dropped me off at my house, I said, “Sure. It’s on the way home anyway, so why not?”
So it came to pass that on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 15, 1983, I stepped out of Bruce’s parked car and walked past the entrance of Coral Park Elementary for the first time since that cold November day in 1972. By the time we arrived, most of the kids were already gone – it was the last day of the school year, and many of them had gone on field trips to nearby parks or been dismissed early to get a proper start on summer break.
While Bruce waited in the car, I walked briskly to the school office and after I told her I had been a student at Coral Park, I asked the receptionist if Ms. Turtletaub was still teaching there.
“Yes, Ms. Turtletaub is still teaching third grade. Was she your teacher when you were here?”
“Yes, ma’am, I just finished my senior year at South Miami Senior High, and I thought I’d stop by and thank her for being my teacher back then.”
“Oh, congratulations, Mr….”
“Alex. Alex Diaz-Granados.”
“Congratulations, Alex,” the receptionist said. She looked at the clock on the office wall. It was just past 4 PM. “I’m sure that Ms. Turtletaub is still on school grounds; she usually does some grading in her classroom before going home.”
“Classroom? It wouldn’t happen to be Room E-13, would it?”
“That’s the one. You have a good memory. Were you here long?”
“No. I was only here for three months. Just long enough to get my first progress report and my school pictures.”
“Oh. What school year again?”
“1972-1973. Coral Park didn’t have a Special Ed department, so I was transferred to Tropical. And sometimes Special Ed kids aren’t promoted out of elementary and sent to junior high till they’re 13 or 14. I’m one of those….”
“I understand,” the receptionist said. “I’m sure Ms. Turtletaub will be happy to see you, Alex.”
She gave me directions to get to Room E-13; I had not been there in over a decade, and I didn’t want to look like a lost tourist in a foreign country, so I asked how to get there from the office.
I walked briskly on the concrete walkways, passing in front of the school library that I’d visited maybe two or three times and the more familiar cafeteria. I didn’t stop in either; Bruce was waiting in the car, after all, and I didn’t want to inconvenience him any more than necessary. I just focused on getting to my old classroom and seeing Ms. Turtletaub one last time.
As I stopped to marvel at how small everything looked to 20-year-old me in comparison to how big Coral Park Elementary had seemed to my younger self, I suddenly found myself on the threshold of E-13. At that moment, when I saw the open classroom door, with the 1982-1983 class roster affixed to the wall still next to the door frame, as well as the rows of desks – which were of a different vintage and more modern design from the ones that were there during my brief stay there – I suddenly had a weird feeling that felt like a mix of déjà vu and existential angst.
I fought the urge to simply turn around and walk away, but something – curiosity, maybe, or a need to close the circle – stopped me. I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and walked inside.
And there, sitting at her desk, intently working on something (grading papers, more than likely), was Ms. Turtletaub, still slender, still dark-haired and light-complexioned, a bit older but somehow less…intimidating than I remembered.
I knocked gently on the classroom door before going further inside to get her attention. She looked up from her paperwork and looked at me with a mix of curiosity and politeness.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Ms. Turtletaub?”
“Yes, that’s me,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“Um, well, ma’am, you probably don’t remember me, but I was in your class a while back and since today was my last day of high school, I thought I’d stop by to thank you.”
“That’s very sweet of you…” she said, a look of “I can’t quite place the face” in her dark but still friendly eyes. “You were one of my students, you say?”
“Yes, ma’am. My name is Alex. Alex Diaz-Granados, and I used to sit right…there…” I pointed to the outermost desk in the left side of the third row from the front.
“Which school year was that? You do look familiar, but…”
“Oh, it was ten school years ago, Ms. Turtletaub. I was only here for three months or so, then I got transferred to Tropical because they had a Special Ed department.”
“But you remembered me after all this time?”
“I did. You made a strong impression on me even though I wasn’t here a long time.”
Ms. Turtletaub smiled at me, with sincere warmth and kindness that I realized, at age 20, that she had probably had for me during our brief time as teacher and less-than-apt pupil.
“Why, thank you, Alex. That’s sweet of you to say. You did well in school after you left us, I trust?”
“Well, I got held back at Tropical before I started going to regular classes. I didn’t know much English when I started third grade, so it took some time to get me up to speed in language arts, math, and all that. Add to that going to physical and occupational therapy, Cub Scout meetings, and other activities…but I did get ‘fused’ and was in mainstream classes.”
She smiled again. “Sounds like Coral Park’s loss…my loss…was Tropical’s gain. Did you go to Southwest High? Is that where you graduated from?”
“Well, I was supposed to go to Southwest, but the school didn’t have an elevator installed until recently, so just a few months before the end of ninth grade…three years ago, as a matter of fact, most of the students who were in Special Ed at Riviera Junior High and would have started 10th grade in August of 1980 were transferred to South Miami High,” I said, trying to hide the lingering bit of resentment I still felt about that transfer.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ms. Turtletaub said. “Still, you did it. You graduated. And South Miami is a fantastic school.”
“Yes, it is. I’m proud to have been a Cobra.” As I said this, I showed her my class ring, with the school mascot on one side, the symbol for student journalism on the other, and my faux aquamarine birthstone.
“Oh, so you are a writer?” Ms. Turtletaub said when she saw the quill-and-inkpot symbol on my ring.
“I did two years on the school paper and one on the yearbook,” I said. “Oh, and I also sang in the school choir.”
“That’s wonderful, Alex! Oh, I’m so proud of you….”
At that, she rose to her feet and gave me a quick hug. “I can’t believe you remembered me, though,” she said, a bit of surprised amusement in her voice.
“I did, though.”
“I am really proud of you, even though you were my student for such a short time,” she said.
I looked past her at the room beyond, my gaze landing on a desk three seats away from “mine.” Oh, Cheryl…I thought. I wish I had never left you.
I considered asking Ms. Turtletaub about Cheryl; in my head, I already had a question ready: Hey, Ms. Turtletaub, do you remember a girl named Cheryl? I think her last name was Thigpen….But I knew that she was doing paperwork and probably wanted to get back to it so she could go home at the end of a long day. And Bruce was waiting for me in his car. So, I didn’t ask.
For a second, it seemed like time itself had stopped in Room E-13. Ms. Turtletaub looked at me as if to say The kid turned out to be all right after all, while I fought back the urge to ask about Cheryl and apologize for not doing my homework or say that I saw her in a different light from how I’d seen her in third grade.
Then I saw the clock on the wall: 15 minutes had elapsed since I’d stepped back into my former classroom, and it was going to be the middle of the afternoon drive time – rush hour – and I didn’t want to get on Bruce’s bad side. And I didn’t want to take up any more of my former teacher’s time, so I thanked her again for being my first teacher and left.
5 thoughts on “Tempus Fugit: Remembering Cheryl T- 50 Years Later, Part the Third”
First loves are so hard. Much love to you Alex.
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I’ve internalized this story for such a long time. I never talked about it with anyone, nor did I write a roman a clef like I did in Reunion…..
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