It was the Age of Innocence.

There was a time when little girls were just…little girls. They weren’t creations of Victoria’s Secret, or Estee Lauder, or Valentino, or Hugh Hefner.

I think I discovered girls in Mrs. Putns’ Grade 1 class at Glen Echo Elementary School in Hamilton. But I didn’t discover the right girls until much later.

Larry Grade 1 Glen Echo 2

Grade 1 Glen Echo School 1962…me in bottom right holding the ‘S’…

Kindergarten and Grade 1 girls in my classes played hopscotch and hot-pepper skipping rope with all of the fanciful rhyming verses that went with it:

 Ice cream soda pop , Lemonade Punch,

Tell me the name of my honey-bunch .. A, B, C, D ….

girls-jumping-rope

We boys played tag and road hockey and Red Rover. They didn’t like the same things we liked, and yet there was something about them that made us just want to chase after them, hit them and pull their hair. These were the heartfelt signposts of love in the kindergarten fraternity. I think the girls knew this, but we boys were woefully ignorant of any deeper meaning to our intentions.

We told everyone including our best buddies that we hated girls, but who were we kidding. Girls were different, but they were a GOOD different and we wanted a piece of their action.

These curiously perplexing creatures were usually smart and attentive, often pretty like spring daffodils, they wore colourful wool plaid skirts and white tights that they were always yarding up. We hadn’t experienced hormonal tides just yet. So while we wanted their attention and to interact flirtatiously, we didn’t really know until a few grades later what the outcome of the flirtation involved. It was innocent, and it was exciting.

But we were young and we were boys which meant we could often be callously cruel to girls. Just like we would be savagely heartless to the boys we called fags and homos later in high school. Bullying was an expected repercussion of showing up at school most days.

female-bully

We teased the pretty girls for sure. But it was light-hearted and harmlessly playful teasing. The, shall-we-say, less appealing or less cute girls received a much more vitriolic approach. Not only were they less mouth-wateringly tempting in our boyish eyes, but they often came with strange sounding names. My  school was in an area that attracted many European immigrant families from places like Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Ukraine. I grew up with girls named Zdenka, and Bozica, and Jadranka, and Eunice, and Gunta. We didn’t even TRY to pronounce their last names.

It was the cutesy little blond girls with pig tails named Dale and Cathy and Linda and Anne that drew us in like slightly confused moths to a flame. We were smitten and as the years went by we sent our best buddies across the playground to ask if they would be our “steady”.

It was the rare and very courageous boy who would make the direct approach to express his love wishes. This was early diplomacy at its best. Once the arrangement had been made and agreed upon by both sides, the brief courtship then got underway. At the next recess or lunch break, the conventionally-handsome couple would be found wandering the playground, holding hands and being admired and sometimes jealously hated by the other kids. The affair would usually last two or three days and then dissolve like strawberry Kool-Aid in cold water.

swan

And then something quite strange happened in early high school (Glendale was its name). I learned something very important about the physical maturation of girls. And it was more startling to me than the swelling of breasts and curvature of hips. Health classes in which we boys snickered throughout had forewarned me about the expected, and gloriously welcome feminine changes. The nasty and unexpected part was when all, or at least most of the ugly ducklings that I and most of my pals had cruelly teased, transformed into delicate and beautiful swans over the period of a year or two. Faces and bodies remodeled, rejigged, and reorganized themselves. Awkward features morphed like larvae into radiant butterflies. Beauty emerged where we boys least expected it and it was time for our reckoning.

My bridges were burned.

I paid the price for the evil I had unleashed in years gone by.

My earlier cruel deeds of teasing, mocking, and ridicule now came back to haunt me. My teenager hormones were swelling to a high-school crescendo. I wanted the attractive girls, both the cute ones from earlier days (who often didn’t seem as attractive as they once had) and the newly-minted swans with fresh appeal. I wanted them badly. In a savagely cruel twist, the same hormones that were responsible for pumping blood in enormous quantities to regions below my waist, were also triggering ugly, pus-filled facial eruptions that I couldn’t hide from.

My pre-adolescent sweet looks were tumbling into an abominable reversal and I was becoming the UGLY Duckling!

And maybe worse, the new swans weren’t teasing or heckling me as I had them earlier, they were merely ignoring me. SOME…ANY… attention would have been better than none at this point but I became invisible for the next 3 or 4 years of high school. WOE was me!

Shakespeare couldn’t have written a more heart-rending tragedy for an adolescent young man.

It wasn’t until Grade 12 that I finally began to emerge from my well-deserved visit to the penalty box. A new maturity and understanding of peoples’ dignity was developing. Any tease left in me became more sophisticated and gentle. My face, though still somewhat pimply, began to take on  more manly proportions and appearance. The old and new swans with whom I had grown to this stage, never really came around to the realization that I could be a keeper. My bridges had been truly burned.

But fortunately, brand-new swans blew into my realm who had never experienced my earlier, less comely stages. I was now an unknown entity with no history of cruel intentions or pock-marked face to recall. It was like starting kindergarten all over again, and I was older and a smidgen smarter this time.

Larry Grade 13 3

Me…A Grade 13 grad with just a few pimples and a new attitude…

Finally I was able to swim with the swans, of all types, again – but I wasn’t only graduating from academic high school. My education in life and people had now begun. Pretty swans still had their appeal, but there was a greater depth to relationships than just the beautiful plumage. The complexities and richness we encounter daily when we trace our lives by passing through others’ was beginning to settle in.

And here I am decades later, a whole lot wiser (in some ways!), yet still working daily to fashion poetic rhyme and reason of the people, the words, and the images from my past.

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