I liked school as long as I was sitting down, and lucky for me there was a lot of sitting in those days. I excelled at raising my hand and keeping my notebook tidy. In music class, I could hum, eventually locate the melody, and blend in. In art, I learned early that coloring inside the lines often trumped talent. I was relieved to have been born a girl because I had to do far less to prove myself than a boy did. It let me lower my expectations and avoid disappointment. I was excellent at being a girl.
There were setbacks, of course. Because we lined up and walked the halls in Size Order, I was never able to forget for a second that I was freakishly tall. Three girls in my class were also named Linda, rendering me “Linda D.” until I got to high school. I spent a fair amount of time wondering why my parents hadn’t thought ahead before giving me the most popular name in the universe, or — for that matter — combining their towering genes to create a child who was taller than her pediatrician by the time she was 12.
It was harder to adapt in gym class than other quadrants of Raymond J. Lockhart School, but unless it was October, I did okay there, too. Hugging the wall, and shouting, “Yeah!” when my team scored, and “Ugh!” when my team missed a goal, I could pretend to be in the mix of a spirited crab soccer game without my foot ever touching the ball. I was an expert at losing my place in line when we were climbing ropes. By 6th grade I’d mastered all the non-participation tricks ever invented.
But October always arrived no matter what grade I was in. And October meant that our gym teachers would push a button to retract the sliding wall that separated the girls’ gym from the boys’ gym and make their big announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, next week we will begin our Square Dance unit. This is an important social component of physical education. You will stay in your street clothes.” They always made it seem like we’d be curing Leukemia starting the next Tuesday and that always bothered me. Also, who called them street clothes?
Our gym teachers were a married couple. We guessed their combined ages to be about 230. Mr. and Mrs. Tierney went with the Darwinian model when it came to Square Dance as they did for every game we ever played. To me, Square Dancing seemed very much like Dodge Ball except there was some curtsying here and there. I was always slightly disappointed on the first day of Square Dance when I didn’t wake up temporarily paralyzed.
“Girls on this side of the gymnasium, boys on that one. Line up, single file.” And with that, the choosing-your-partner humiliation began.
So here it was, another year when no miraculous change in the curriculum was going to save me. I began by checking to see if any of the boys had grown a foot or two over the summer. As always only Russell Oliver, whose parents were rumored to be over seven feet tall, was taller than I was. I silently yearned for other Massapequa families to be overtaken with whatever chromosome arrangement was lurking in the Olivers’ bodies. I saw no growth spurts.
“Kevin O’Hara!” Mr. Tierney announced. To the accompaniment of some hooting and hollering from the other boys, Kevin walked to the other side of the gym, sizing up the girls waiting to be chosen. He took his pick, and promenaded her to the center line. Then every boy, one by one, got his turn.
As the number of unchosen girls started to dwindle, I did what I did every year. I hunkered down for the long haul, attempting a casual pose, absently looking up at the rafters as if thinking, What is that exciting, important thing I’m doing later?
Sandy Palma and I usually looked at each other at about this point. I was too tall and she was too heavy, and it would come down to which one of us would be the last chosen. I was okay with Sandy getting chosen before me. Sitting down, I could blend in better than Sandy. When she sat down, there just seemed to be more of her. But, oh God, did I hate being the last one even if I was trying to be gracious to Sandy, who deserved it. Being last meant you had to endure the sound of the boys engaged in mock applause when the last boy had no choice but to pair up with you. And for reasons that probably died with them, the Tierneys always acted like they didn’t hear the din going up.
Russell was called third on this day, an enviable position if he wanted to pick a pretty girl, and why wouldn’t he?
Then, in a move that made no sense to anyone, Russell walked over and chose me. What? I may have heard a collective gasp, or maybe that was just the voice in my head. Life was mighty rosy from the center line when you’re not the last girl chosen.
I always thought Russell’s choosing me was a pure act of kindness. As the only boy tall enough to promenade me through the perils of 6th grade, I thought it was a conscious choice, meant to help me out.
About five years ago, I found Russell Oliver on Facebook and wrote to him, telling him how fondly I remembered this moment and thanking him for it. His response was gracious without overcommitting. Because I don’t think for a second he remembered any of this, which makes me think that I took things way too hard in my childhood.