For the next weeks, we ate lunch together, swung next to each other on playgrounds. Even now, from a distance of 40+ years, this strikes me as the most remarkable time of my life.
West Falls, the small town where I grew up, is about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo, NY.
During winter, boys played hockey at recess. I was a goalkeeper on the losing side of almost every game we played. About the only thing I could do right was take out my aggression on opponents, slashing the wide wooden blade of my goalie stick at whoever came near my goal. Anger management was not a skill I possessed back then, okay?
One day, I must have slashed someone a bit too hard, a bit too wildly, and I was sent back to our classroom as punishment. I was crying my eyes out, bawling, so mad and disappointed and embarrassed was I at my behavior and punishment. She and another girl had chosen to stay inside during that recess period. As soon as I stepped inside the classroom, still bawling uncontrollably, the other girl started mocking me mercilessly—“Ha Ha! Nicky’s crying! Nicky’s crying!” But she, my first crush, hushed her friend and explained that I wasn’t crying, explained that a boy as brave as I would never cry, explained that what appeared to be tears was only the moisture of snow melting on my cheeks.
As flimsy as this face-saving gesture was, it silenced her friend and calmed me from my anger and tears. The mercy. The grace. That’s what I remember most from my first true love. How does one repay a debt like that?
Addendum: My parents moved away from West Falls sometime in the early 1990s. As a consequence, I haven't visited West Falls in several decades, sadly, because I have lots of fond memories about the area. When I was trying to find a picture of my old school (see above), I found out that the building now houses The Aurora Waldorf School, the only independent, co-educational, non-sectarian school in its region. Looking at pictures of the school now, and of the wooded trails around the school, brought back loads of memories.
It's funny, but third grade was such an emotionally pivotal year for me. This was way back in the early 1970s. Up until the third grade, I was the school bully. And then a school psychologist diagnosed me as having ADD. Which was quite extraordinary for the time. I was among the first generation of Ritalin kids... and Ritalin, for me, was a godsend. I became calmer (not that you'd be able to tell from the anecdote above) and suddenly was able to focus and do well in school. I went from being a marginal student to an A-level student. But, sadly, I was never able to develop into a decent goaltender.