Brand building through storytelling

The first boy who loved me

The other day while avoiding some task or other, I googled the name of the boy who fell for me in the summer of 1965 and whose love note, haltingly typed on index cards, I still keep in a box of old letters. It concludes, “Please exceuse the typing Rona, I’m nervous.” At the time I found this amusing.

I had been waiting for a boy to declare his love for me but the suitor of my lofty and luminous daydreams was not the guy who showed up in the summer drama course at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. This boy’s gift was for mechanical matters, not declaiming Shakespeare (while I rehearsed Ophelia’s mad scene, he set the lights). He was built like a wrestler, not like a consumptive poet. He came from Virginia, which made him an alien species to a New Hampshire girl who had never been south of Manhattan. I viewed all southerners as simpering belles, cross-burning racists or oppressed black heroes fighting for equality.

The Boy from Virginia happened to be black, a student in an all-black school (this was the era of the Jim Crow laws). I saw him as a victim of the cruelest injustice, not that he appeared to see himself that way. He could banter with kids from posh northeastern suburbs, yet early on he staked out the private domain of the lighting booth. I’d never met anyone so adept both at sliding into the social ebb and flow and at sizing it up from far. The only classmate with whom he seemed entirely at ease was the other southerner, a plain-spoken white girl from Alabama. It was with her that he planned his campaign for my heart.

When the Boy from Virginia asked me out to the campus movie night, I said yes partly out of gratitude that finally a boy had noticed me. Back home none of them did. A few months shy of 16, I had never gone parking, never been kissed, never had so much as a coffee date. And this particular boy had presence, if not my notion of heart-throb potential. Just my age, he seemed indefinably older. That appealed to me. So did the chance to prove how enlightened I was by accepting a date with the only black student in my class and one of the very few in Andover’s entire summer program. Until then my stand for civil rights had consisted of singing “We Shall Overcome” with a gaggle of white Unitarians in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

I’m not sure the big night would have gone any better if our movie could have beenThe Pink Panther. Or A Hard Day’s Night or Goldfinger or Viva Las Vegas. But of all the movies teen couples were seeing that year, the one Andover had picked was the colonial war epic Zulu, in which 4000 naked, foot-stamping, ululating African warriors unleash their spears and their fury on a band of outnumbered British soldiers who are fighting to save their fort for queen and country.

There I sat, knee to knee with my black date, while on screen black men rampaged like stereotypical savages. It didn’t help that another scene featured semi-nude black women shaking their pendulous breasts. I cringed with shame for the Boy from Virginia, for all the things we’d both struggled to ignore about the chasm of race between us, and for my own sexual panic as my date’s hand worked its way from my shoulder to the space between my thighs. In my fantasies sex had been a swoon, a fade to silky black. Faced with the sweaty desires of a real teenage male, I was suddenly breathless with confusion. I couldn’t have told you what it was that unnerved me. I just knew I wanted this to end.

For the Boy from Virginia it had barely begun. He told me he loved me as he could love no one else. I answered that since I couldn’t love him back, I would not compound his pain by trying to be friends. From then on I did my best to ignore him. And after drawing a curtain of silence between us, I explained to his confidante from Alabama why I couldn’t be his girlfriend: we didn’t know each well enough. He was steadfast enough to buy this claptrap, or at least not to question it, but in his anguish he skipped the cast party. I learned this from his pleading note, handed to me with downcast eyes. I hadn’t even noticed his absence. Everyone had applauded my star turn as lovesick Ophelia, and that was all that mattered.

Back home in our garden, I mentioned to my mother how eye-opening it had been to find myself on a date with a boy from a segregated school. She looked up from her weeding and said, as if picturing a future stalwart of the Ku Klux Klan, “Youwith a southern white boy?” When I set her straight, she threw down her trowel and exclaimed, “But Rona, what if you married him?” My mother the Canadian liberal, who had always told me I would have to get to college or even graduate school to meet any man worth marrying, seemed to think I’d narrowly dodged a catastrophe.

Her horror shocks me to this day but in 1964 it wasn’t entirely surprising. Just four years had passed since blonde, nordic May Britt provoked an uproar by marrying Sammy Davis, Jr. Thirty-one states had laws on the books against interracial marriage. As my mother put it, “Marrying that boy would make your life so much…harder.”

I never did find the Boy from Virginia online–and I’ve tried more than once. I wish I could tell him he was right on the money when he wrote to me, “Someday, Rona, you will see the situation that I am in and you will realize how I feel now.” I wonder what kind of woman he married, and whether she’s heard about me. Whoever she is, I’m betting they’re still together. As I said, the guy was steadfast. Some things about a person you can’t miss, even if you’re clueless and not yet 16.

Click here to read another favourite post about a reunion with my best friend from high school. 

Posted by Rona

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