"Well, I'll Be John Brown"

Real stories about folks who have blessed my life with the joy and fulfillment of laughter. Long may they live.

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, United States

A Southern Boy - Born In Alabama, Reared In Georgia, and Matriculated, Married & Initiated Into Manhood In Tennessee.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"She Spoke To Me!"

Popularity at all costs is a lethal plague among high schoolers. The damnable practice of stepping on others as one climbs to the top in any pursuit is learned long before the corporate ladder is accessible. A high school education often includes an unspoken course on the “how to’s” of becoming a, “Mr. or Miss Whatever,” among one’s peers. The snotty, elitist attitudes sometimes exhibited by adults hungry for popularity and power are, in many cases, first learned during grades eight through twelve.

However, not everyone who reaches “popular” status in high school becomes an arrogant, unadulterated putz. Sometimes, one of the “good guys” wins it all, and, despite the temptation to become otherwise, stays the “good guy” through it all, and beyond. The following is a tale about one such, “good guy.” And, a bodaciously fine-looking one too, I might add.

This writer was a mere face in the crowd in high school. Until he reached the eleventh or twelfth grade, no one knew that there was actually someone living on the inside of his pudgy body. The only honors this southern boy knew until the age of seventeen included being a place kicker on the varsity football team, a bass drummer in marching band, and occasionally playing the rather embarrassing role of being a teacher’s pet in the classroom.

(Someone has said that it doesn’t matter WHEN a person blooms, just so long as they do. This writer blossomed in his later teens and through his mid-twenties. His “coming out” during those great days brought much joy, and a true sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. This is especially so now that mid-life has come, and the exciting era of growing Elvis-style sideburns and thick, black, chin stubble is but a sweet memory.)

While this writer labored through much of his early high school career as a relative nobody, just the opposite was true with “her.” Risa Clay was “Miss Everything” in our high school - majorette, homecoming queen, co-president of the student body, queen of the Red Rose Ball, etc., etc. The very sound of her name brings back vivid images of the days when she reigned over our downtown Atlanta campus. Everybody knew her, and everybody loved her. When Risa walked down the hall, a herd of budding young studs would trail after her like lawyers following an ambulance. If anyone ever had justification for contracting a sickening case of, “the big head,” it was Risa Clay.

However, none of what she accomplished ever went to her head. Risa was as “normal” and “real” a person then as she is today. She would speak to and befriend practically anyone and everyone. While other popular girls walked down the hall as if the archangel Gabriel himself had deposited them on our school’s doorstep, Risa never bought into her own “press.” Our school didn’t elect homely, booger-eating hags as queen of both the homecoming football game and our one big, gala, social event of a dance each year. Therefore, when it is said that Risa Clay was beautiful, popular, and well-loved, you can bet your 401k she was.

School age crushes are silly and laughable. Also known as, “puppy love”, so-called for its resemblance to the adoring, worshipful affection exhibited by a puppy, a crush is really nothing more than immature, shallow emotion gone to seed. Crushes know no respect of persons - male and female alike have known the pain and misery of this cruel phenomenon. From observation, it seems that most females suffer silently when the crush-carrying “love bug” has bitten them. Young males, however, are a far different story. Already prone toward acts of bravado by reason of their DNA, smitten adolescent boys frequently resort to open, comical demonstrations of strength, masculinity, and/or other efforts at exhibiting their virility - each designed to impress the object of their crush.

Too, when a young, high school age lad is struggling not only with a hopeless crush, but also with things such as a chunky waistline, chronic acne, and the inherent clumsiness and awkwardness of puberty (not to mention an ongoing war with his parents over their insistence that he maintain a United States Marine Corps-like, white-sidewall, haircut), unless he chooses to do something outlandish, it is highly unlikely that a true beauty queen would ever notice him. Picture an overweight Napoleon Dynamite without the frizzy hair and glasses, but a full, greasy head shorter. Further, imagine this person trying hopelessly to make a favorable visual impression on, let’s say, a young Elizabeth Taylor or perhaps a modern day Jennifer Garner. Hell would surely freeze over first.

The only other alternative to his doing something really obvious and really stupid to get her to notice him would be to arrange a timely phone call placed by a friend to the object of his crush (like this isn’t stupid and obvious enough). The gist of this call would go something like this: “I know somebody who likes you…He wanted me to call and ask if you like him back!”

Given such a profound level of utter idiocy, it is a pure wonder that males and females ever finally do get together for the replenishing of the earth. The Good Lord surely has to be in control of the process for it to ever succeed. Most of the time, these inane phone calls backfire. More times than not it is the caller that ends up getting the girl.

Risa walked by this writer’s locker almost every day. Check that – Risa “strutted” by this writer’s locker almost every day. Even when a female is as genuine and “real” as Risa was, they still know that boys are visually active long before they are sexually active. They learn this early in life.

If fortunate enough to have brothers, a girl first learns of the male’s visual obsession while helping her mother clean house on Saturday morning. Many a sister has belly-ached loud and long about having to pick up piles of comic books left scattered over the house by their brothers.

Later, puberty brings further affirmation of a young male’s obsession with ogling the female body. Copies of Playboy magazine are likely to be found tucked under beds, hidden in dresser drawers, or even taped behind the mirror on a young man’s bedroom wall. Did I mention that sometimes teenage boys do incredibly stupid things – like leaving copies of Playboy in the various nooks or crannies of their rooms – with the absolute certainty that no one will ever find them? Boys eventually learn that both mothers and sisters come equipped from the womb with highly sensitive, close-tracking, cranial, synapse driven, radar that enables them to effortlessly locate such paraphernalia - regardless of how well it is thought to be hidden.

Risa dressed in the popular styles of the day, but certainly never in clothing that implied a slutty, “come-and-get-me,” agenda. She was always well groomed, and impeccably carried herself with dignity and grace. Without being overly graphic, Risa’s body was wonderful. All the right places were just the right size. And, her face was, well, gorgeous. Risa could have easily been a model or an actress. She was the essence of femininity, true beauty, and a statement of how God meant a woman to look and present herself to others.

Risa Clay and this writer grew up in adjoining neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta. Their respective elementary schools played one another in the old, YMCA sponsored, “Gray – Y” football league. Their two families shopped at the same Big Star and Food Giant grocery stores, ate at the same Dairy Queen and Davis Brothers Cafeteria, bought plants and other yard-related items at the same Greene Brothers Nursery, and enjoyed movies at the same Marietta Boulevard drive-in theater. However, for some beyond-this-world reason, their paths never crossed. Until, that is, those glorious, unforgettable days of high school.

It was a Tuesday in the early fall. School hadn’t been in session but a few weeks. He was a lowly freshman (ninth grader) and she was an up and coming junior. This was before the days of “middle school” or “junior high” (at least in the Atlanta public school system). Elementary school was grades K-7, and high school was 8th-12th. While a ninth-grader was not as lowly as the dreaded “sub-freshman” (eighth grader), his was still an unenviable position - especially for making any sort of meaningful headway with a female upper-classman. This was particularly so when the girl was as popular, as beautiful, and as untouchable as Risa Clay.

This writer’s locker was on the second floor of their four story school building, not far from the end of the hall. The hundreds of old, sea-foam green lockers at our high school were full head-to-toe length, and just wide enough for a page from a magazine (if the sides were trimmed just right) to be taped inside the door. Our school had been built in 1922. Many of its original features from that era, including those old green lockers, were still in place well into the late 60’s and early ‘70’s. These lockers were not only places to store coats, lunches, books, and magazines you didn’t want your mother and sister to find, they were also “hang-outs.” They provided great places to meet girls, discuss the, “fight of the day,” or arrange other after-school plans such as going to the Varsity for a chili-steak, rings, and an “F.O.” (Frosted Orange).

Our high school’s daily schedule began at 8:15 AM with homeroom, and concluded at 3:00 PM after six, fifty-five minute “periods” of class, and a half-hour lunch in between. Separating each period, the crushing mob of 1,500 or so students was given five ridiculously short minutes to make it from one classroom to the next. To the uninformed reader five minutes might sound like plenty of time to make this journey. However, our school was, again, four stories tall. If you were on the basement floor during first period and had to make it to a second period science class on the third floor, there had better be some serious “giddy-up” in your step. No time for loitering around a locker – no matter how pretty she was.

The perfect time of day for these lockers to become gathering places was before homeroom. Buses full of students began arriving at our school as early as 7:20 AM. If you were lucky enough to be on one of these buses, their early arrival provided almost a whole hour to either finish a homework assignment, study for a test, or stand by an open locker hoping and praying for something earth shaking to happen. On one particular Tuesday, about fifteen minutes before the ringing of the homeroom bell, something did!

That morning, this writer was sporting some brand new “school clothes.” The outfit for that day was anchored with a $10.00 pair of extremely stylish, navy blue, gabardine, “baggie” pants. These pants had wide legs, were worn low on the hips, and came accented with a cuff at the bottom of the leg deep enough to hide a small bag of M&M’s in.
The pants were held in place by a wide, white leather belt.

Next was a rose colored (my sister and my rivals at school argued that it was actually more of a “hot pink” color) button down dress shirt, with the all-important IZOD alligator on the left chest pocket. The shirt could have been “puke green” or “baby doo-doo yellow” and it wouldn’t have mattered - just as long as that IZOD alligator symbol was present. The presence of that silly alligator garnered a ridiculously inflated price for a shirt that would today be sold at Wal-Mart for $7.99 or less.

Finally, the outfit for that unforgettable day was accented with a pair of shoes that, now almost forty years later, defy human description. Picture Bozo the Clown and his “brogan” clown shoes – these were far worse. Like his contemporaries, and much to his parents’ chagrin and protest, this writer bought a pair of shoes that Bozo wouldn’t have worn on camera, let alone off. They, too, were white, with red suede covering the area where the shoe laces were holed, as well as the toe and heel. Down each side of the shoe were two dark blue suede stripes with a multiple “star” cutout design. These shoes were visible from great distances without the aid of binoculars. They were infinitely more in vogue than anything offered at the time by either Florsheim or Tom McAnn.

This young, “decked-out,” girl watcher had taken his post about 7:35 AM that morning. For the next twenty-five minutes, he was treated to a voyeur’s parade of sweet, young things slowly passing his locker on their way to homeroom. Some of them spoke, some didn’t. No matter; being coy and snotty to members of the opposite sex was, and is still today, a “normal” head game played by the genders at this stage in life. The more aloof and detached one pretends to be – the better. It was almost expected. This was especially true if either of the people involved was one of the popular crowd.

This writer looked down at his watch. It was 8:00 AM sharp. Thinking that perhaps he should go in homeroom and study for a Geometry test coming up in third period, he was about to turn and close his locker when, all at once, the heavens opened. He was not ready for the mind-numbing experience that was about to happen. To this day, though, he remembers every heartbeat, every tingle up the spine, and every “frame” of the visualization – as though a classic, high definition movie was being filmed in glorious Technicolor right before his very eyes.

The door to the stairwell at the end of the hall swung open, and through it walked THE most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. Her dark brown hair and porcelain-skinned complexion made her appear almost angelic. Her smile was as bright as the morning sun, and her body was, well, a perfect “10.” Eat your heart out, Bo Derek.

He had seen her from a distance on many occasions. They were in marching band together, and shared at least one other class period in adjoining rooms. Her picture was plastered all over the school halls whenever there was an election, not to mention on seemingly every other page of his sub-freshman yearbook. In school assemblies he had noticed her sitting on stage. And, they even passed one another at a distance on rare occasions on their way to lunch in the school cafeteria. But, not until this moment had he seen Risa Clay up close and personal.

As Risa walked down the hall toward him, this writer froze. “What should I do?” he whispered to himself. “Should I look away, pretend I don’t see her, or turn around like I’m looking for something in my locker?... Or, should I just drop my head and look down at the floor?...If she looks at me what should I do?...Should I say something to her?...Maybe a subtle ‘hey there’ would be good…Should I compliment her?...’You’re looking mighty fine this morning, Risa.’…No way you twit, she doesn’t even know you!!!!!!”

Before this poor, freshman sap could decide what to do, Risa took the bull by the horns. She stopped, walked over to him – smiling really big, and said, “Hey there, handsome, you’re looking SHARP today!” She winked, smiled again even bigger than the first time, slung her pretty head of brown hair around, and continued down the hall toward her homeroom. “See ya’ later,” she said as she hurried on her way - the smell of her glorious perfume hanging in the air.

In less than twelve seconds it was all over! The most popular, most elegantly beautiful, most feminine, graceful woman that ever walked the halls of our high school had spoken to…ME! Not only had she spoken to me, she had also complimented my appearance! Not only had she complimented my appearance, she called me, “handsome!” WOW!!! FAR OUT!!! DADDY RABBIT!!!!

“Take me now, Lord,” this writer remembers thinking, “I will N-E-V-E-R know a sweeter moment than this - no matter how long you let me live on this earth.”

Yours truly slowly turned toward his locker, his heart beating so strongly in his chest that the little IZOD alligator on his shirt felt like it was dancing a jig. The sound of him trying catch his breath echoed off the thin metal walls of the inside of that old locker. He began to futilely search the locker for an extra pair of underwear – certain that he had just “ruined” the ones he was wearing. Suddenly, studying for that third period Geometry test held no urgency whatsoever. The grueling two-hour football practice scheduled for after school that day was no longer dreaded. And, the upcoming eight hour shift behind the white-hot grill at McDonald’s the following Saturday seemed an eternity away.

The world could have come to an end on that Tuesday morning and it honestly would not have mattered. Never mind that she didn’t know his name. Never mind that she did basically the same thing to at least three other guys standing in the hall before she reached her own locker. And, never mind that this was one of the only times she would ever stop and speak to him during their high school years. All that mattered was that she did it THIS TIME.

“She spoke to me…She spoke to me…She spoke to ME!” This thought raced crazily through his head throughout home room. When his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Martha Cornell, called his name during the taking of roll he heard not one decibel of her voice. It was not until her third attempt at, “MR. D-E-C-K-E-R!!!!!”, that this writer was able to respond affirmatively. Even then, he was really NOT “present.”

He saw Risa again that morning - in band during first period – but this time from marathon distance. Varsity band always practiced on the field at first period during football season. For some reason the drum line was never allowed within arm’s length of the majorettes. So, his reliving of “THE” moment from earlier in the hall had to be done from no less than sixty yards away.

Too, he was still so awed by what had happened that during marching practice he missed several beat patterns in cadences, and messed up at crucial points of pivot and turn in marching formations. In one instance, when the rest of the drum line made a right-face turn to march toward the home sidelines, he turned the wrong way and marched boldly toward – you guessed it – the majorettes, who were gathered on the other side of the field. They still talk about that move at band reunions to this day.

For the rest of that day and for the thirty-nine years that have now come and gone since that day, this writer has walked in the clouds every time the name, “Risa Clay,” is remembered. Every time the pages of the high school yearbooks that contain her picture are opened, that remarkable morning comes racing back. There were, likely, other days when she passed him in the hall and said hello, but none like “THAT” day.

As mentioned earlier, during her final two years at our high school, Risa was, among many other things, homecoming queen, co-president of the student body, and queen of the Red Rose Ball. She would never admit to it, nor allow anyone to say it in her presence, but in our school she truly was, “Miss Everything.” As beautiful as Risa was on the outside, it was her inner beauty that made everybody love her. Everybody including a tubby, greasy-headed, bass drummer who occasionally marched in the wrong direction, wore ridiculous looking shoes, and worked at McDonald’s on Saturdays.

Risa, wherever you are, thank you for being “you.” Thank you for being the precious object of a silly, school-boy crush that started on the second floor of that old high school. And, thank you for giving one old boy from Riverside a memory that grows sweeter with every year’s passing.

You were a “honey” way back in 1970. In this writer’s eyes, you still are!

- David Decker