I want to say I was in fifth or sixth grade.
I had an afro that created a large black halo around my head. Nothing about it was cute, and I dressed somewhere in between baggy but I’d really like to try and look more feminine, but it was an epic fail lewk. I struggled a lot with my appearance. Mother always wanted me neat and clothed. It didn’t really matter what that looked like. For me, it meant getting made fun of constantly. I kept to myself a lot but also learned that I had a voice to go along with my frightening appearance, so I became a formidable force.
I had a few friends but stayed away from boys a lot. Encounters with them turned into crazy battles, hurtling insults that ended up in me screaming at the top of my lungs so that I could keep the tears in. Being quick witted saved me most of the time yet it always ended with me crying about it later.
I wanted to be a pretty girl, desperately wanted to be seen.
The classroom was broken up into 6 groups with 4-6 kids to a clump. I sat in the first row of groups at the far end, near the windows at a table of 6. Easily accessible to the teacher and within ear shot, we were a no nonsense group. I was always a good student and enjoyed learning, most times. English was my favorite subject, but somehow I didn’t make it into the elite reading club, as apparently, I was ready for it so instead of reading at my level, I leaned on trashy supermarket novels or whatever I could find in the library to soothe yet another wound of rejection.
Lonely hearts story:
Generally things went smoothly in class, I really don’t remember much as it was so long ago but I will never forget Manny. I think he was thrown into our class with the hope that our teacher could deal with him. It didn’t take long before he moved from group to group as he was disruptive and did not catch on to the material quick enough. He stayed with my group the longest ,and I want to say it was because of me that he lasted as long as he did. I tried to keep him focused and on task, helping where I could, shushing when I couldn’t. He was never mean to me, and made sure to do whatever I said. I remember getting sick and when I returned to school, Manny was no longer at our table.
Manny was moved to a desk that faced the black board.
Literally, up against it. The teacher even placed a divider between him and our group as we were the closest to him and she didn’t want him interacting with anyone. As an adult looking back, I think he may have had ADHD and needed to be in a Special Ed class. Sadly, folks were still pretty ignorant about those things and so, he was forcefully isolated.
Manny stayed quiet for a while, and behaved. Occasionally Manny allowed to interact with us sometimes, when the teacher let him move the barrier. He did goof around still, and went out of his way to try and make me smile or laugh. I liked Manny, he was my friend. A detail I omitted with the rest of my classmates.
Everyone said he was weird, annoying, stupid and didnt belong in our class. When I tried to stick up for him the first thing people would say is “Oh? So you like him or something?”. Immediately, I shut up. These bullies would say anything; I didn’t, but they wouldn’t believe me.
I didn’t believe me.
During recess, I encouraged him to listen and behave. Sadly, I begged him to act normal. He laughed at me and said, “But I am normal!”. I reminded him that he faced the black board all day and was hidden in a corner. “That can’t be right, and you know it” giving him a raised eyebrow, he nodded in response.
Unfortunately it came time for there to be another situation where Manny was trying to be social during free time but everyone thought he was being weird. “Leave him alone!” I said to the boys bothering him. “He’s not even talking to you guys, just go away!” I chided.
“Andrea likes Manny!!!”
they screamed in unison. “Stop!” I said mortified. “You’re being childish ” I said. They started pushing him, egging him on to fight back. This time I yelled, getting the attention of everyone around us “Stop!! Leave him alone!” a crowd formed around us, closing us in. The boys began pushing him again so he pushed back. “Stop!” I screamed with several other girls chiming in but clearly these boys wanted a fight.
“Why are you defending him?” one of the boys asked me. “You DO like him!!” another boy yelled from the sidelines. “STOP!” I yelled back again, “I DON’T!!!” looking at Manny, I sighed and said “He’s my friend.”
They all laughed at me.
“Stop Laughing at Her !” Manny roared, pushing the boy who instigated the whole thing. “Leave her alone!” I could see he was breathing heavier, his chest going up and down faster and faster. I don’t know if he’d ever been in a fight but he looked ready. Before I could do anything the same kid yells “so YOU like her! What a joke! She’s ugly, look at her!” and they all laughed. Tears burned in my eyes like acid, leaving marks on my cheeks because I couldn’t hold them back.
I pushed through the crowd that was still laughing yet in the background, I heard Manny say “I love her, she’s beautiful!” while raining punches down on the boy. I was long gone before teachers rushed in to break up the fight. Running into the bathroom I locked myself in a stall. I cried so hard I was choking. Holding myself in a tight hug I tried to understand what had just happened. “I like you too,” I whispered.
I Imagined it was Manny’s face that I pressed my face to and not the stall wall.
He was out for a couple of days. When Manny came back, his right eye was a little black and blue, his lower lip was cut. I remember asking him if he was ok, but his immediate response was to hug me. I flinched and pushed him away. “Don’t touch me!” I said harshly.
He looked at me confused and sad, “but I like you” he said softly. “I love you” he whispered. “No, you don’t.” I scolded, turned on my heel and sat down right away. From that moment on, he tried everyday to make me laugh or smile. He would do anything, and that got him into more trouble than usual.
I ignored him completely. Determined to forget what happened and what I was feeling, I switched seats with someone in my group so I was as far away from him as I possibly could get but he was persistent. Leaving chocolates in my desk, little notes, and tiny fake flower bouquets. All of which I pretended to ignore but secretly put away when no one was looking.
February rolled in…
Valentines’ day fell on a Friday. We all made valentines day cards for everyone in the classroom and would distribute them during free time before we went home. The teacher let us have a little party so we all got to relax and hang out with our friends. Poor kid wasn’t allowed to join us. He watched us, smiling but I could see the sadness in his eyes.
Towards the end Manny was given permission to distribute his cards. Many of the kids were cruel towards him. They ripped his card up or threw them away. Some even flat out refused to take them but he still went around to everyone then sat back down. I and a few other girls went over and gave him cards. Happily, Manny jumped up from his seat and started pacing a little. This is something he did when he was nervous or excited. “ Hey Andrea?” he said softly. The girls had already moved on, leaving us alone for a moment. “Yeah?” I said curiously. “Can you come to the back of the line at dismissal please ? ” he asked. I gave him a weird look and he says “ please, just come.” “Ok,” I said and walked to my desk.
He decided to stay standing at his desk
so he could see everyone enjoying themselves at our makeshift party. I sat at my desk fidgeting with cards while making small talk with my tablemates. This gave me an opportunity to look at Manny without being obvious.
He had his hair slicked back, with what looked like a little pompadour. He wore a red and black flannel shirt, with slim fitting jeans, a small cuff at the bottom. Paired with simple dress shoes, he looked very neat,put together and handsome. It was a retro look, something I came to admire in my adult life, but in that moment, he was just precious to me. Manny smiled and laughed to himself as he watched everyone. Pacing every now and then but quickly reminded himself to be still. He casually combed his hair with a little black pocket comb that came in a burgundy plastic holder and fidgeted with that the rest of the afternoon.
I wondered what he wanted that I should stay behind at dismissal.
The day was over and we formed our two lines to exit the building. I stayed in my place until the other kids rushed past me to find their parents. I stayed back as Manny had asked me. “Here” he said, shoving a small box into my hand. “Happy Valentines Day,” he said with a big smile. feeling shocked and overjoyed I returned a toothy smile while quickly opening the box.
The gift was a pink candle from Avon in a heart shaped sea glass container. A simple little red velvet bow adorned the cover. I touched the ripples of the glass, unable to look up at him in my shyness. “Do you like it?” he asked. “Yes” I whispered, blushing. In the background I heard some kids asking what we were doing, and there was a buzz all around us but I was in the moment. Trying to carefully put it away, I was so nervous that my hands were fumbling as I struggled to get it in the box.
“Thank y-” I began but was quickly caught off guard when he leaned in to kiss me. Manny missed the target and got half my mouth, half my cheek. The crowd around us roared in shouts of screaming children saying “EWWW!!!”
My face flushed beet red.
I was embarrassed and angry. I immediately threw the candle on the floor and as it shattered I screamed into Manny’s face “ I DON’T LIKE YOU!”. His face crumpled. I could see the hurt as he lifted his hand to his chest to hold his breaking heart. I wanted so much to be seen, to be pretty to someone but how, when I didn’t actually feel it. Worst of all, there were so many conditions in my head, criteria even. Although Manny was handsome, sadly he didn’t measure up, solely because he was different, and we both couldn’t be different in my mind.
I ran for what felt like forever but it was just a few steps to my bus.
“Que te pasa?” Mariola the bus lady barked at me. “What happened to you?.” “Nothing!” I said back icily, and she didn’t bother me the rest of the time.
In my seat I was alone and sad. I cried myself to sleep hoping this was a nightmare. When I got home, I ran upstairs to try and forget the day. Thankfully it was a Friday. The weekend would hopefully be enough for most people to forget but I wouldn’t, as I held the little red velvet bow that somehow ended up in my pocket.
I broke my first heart.
Broke my own in the process.
I let the world bully me into hurting someone, to protect myself from that same hate. I was a coward, which was probably the really hardest feeling to swallow. We liked each other but I couldn’t reconcile everything happening around us and so, I didn’t have the tools to fight this war. I surrendered before it even started.
We went back to school and it was as if nothing had ever happened but Manny was hurting, and misbehaved. A lot. He threw things. Screamed at the teacher, and at one point was forcefully taken out because he would not listen to anyone. A few days later, Manny was removed from our class on account of his uncontrollable behavior.
I never saw him again.
I mended my heart with the help of my grandma’s kitchen magic for a sad pre teen. Buttered saltines and her famous sweet-spice tea. Manny was no longer occupying space in my mind after a while but would forever remain a barometer for the rest who followed.