Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt, and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.
She was a nerd too, with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust) hiding my feelings.
Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.
And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.
“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”
In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.
“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”
Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.
At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.
The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?” He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”
Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:
“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”
His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”
I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.
Wearing her cheerleader outfit.