Gretchen sat behind me in seventh grade math, placing her in the last row of desks, the row teachers recognize as a hangout for the disaffected. From the first day she distracted me by talking to the back of my head. Not that I minded. Gretchen could be very entertaining. She was a skinny twelve-year-old with a bright, winning face and a smile a bit manic in its intensity. She had a taste for sardonic humor and a gift for mockery. Dropping her head down behind mine so our teacher couldn’t see her mouth moving, she would in a low voice heap derision on her victim, usually our teacher.
Mr. Benjamin was a kind, inoffensive man who had apparently dedicated his life to the utopian dream of basic math literacy for all. His only fault was his profound squareness. For instance, he liked to tell stories with morals aimed straight at us. The one I remember best happened while he was stationed in Finland with his army unit after WWII. He and his Finnish fiancée maintained their virginities on her family’s farm for a whole week, right up to their wedding night, when they enjoyed a consummation more meaningful because it was pure.
I heard a muffled explosion of air behind me followed by suppressed giggles. “What a load! I bet he screwed her in the sauna.” Our teacher’s starry-eyed devotion to the high road seemed to provoke Gretchen.
We shared that class with a girl who dressed like a fourth grader and carried a big notebook with the head of a horse embossed on its plastic cover. Gretchen referred to this timid personality as Horsey Girl and speculated about whether our slow-maturing classmate hosted teas for her dolls and slept with her stuffed animals. Gretchen never bullied the object of her scorn, never spoke to her that I saw, yet ridiculed her with a puzzling ferocity. Did she hate Horsey Girl for refusing to grow up—or for her innocence?
As Gretchen and I became friends she talked less about others and more about herself, regaling me with her exploits. One day she asked the back of my head if I’d ever had sex. When I admitted I hadn’t, she said she had and proceeded to tell about her first time. She and a boy in her sixth grade class snuck back into the school during recess and did it standing up in their cloakroom. She’d liked it. She poked me in the back and laughed. “You should try it sometime.” Was she putting me on? I wasn’t sure, but she definitely got my attention. Sex with Gretchen in a cloakroom joined the stock of fantasies I called upon in bed at night while saying my prayers to Venus.
Having learned I was interested in her personal life, Gretchen kept me posted. Once she told about the night before, when she’d played strip poker with three ninth graders in a basement bedroom. Another time she reported entertaining four East High guys in a parked car. Her X-rated vignettes were delivered with a big grin, making me think she was trying to shock me, yet I believed her. Her stories held together and the details were convincing. She opened my mind to what was possible sexually for a seventh grader.
Next she began coming on to me. The first time was the day Mr. Benjamin called us to his desk so we could view our midterm test scores in his gradebook. I was standing, waiting my turn, when someone stepped behind me and leaned into my back. It was Gretchen. I realized what I was feeling were the two little peaks that showed through her sweater when she sat up straight. I liked what she was doing. I held still so she could press herself against me any way she pleased. I was intrigued that her breasts felt soft and firm at the same time. When I glanced back at her she grinned.
Gretchen had a big pink eraser with nicely rounded edges that rubbed out pencil marks like nobody’s business and smelled lovely while doing it. I got in the habit of borrowing it when I had a lot to erase. It was especially useful on tests because it helped me avoid ripped pages. It helped her on tests too. If she needed to check an answer, we communicated by eraser mail.
“Reach back,” Gretchen whispered one day. I did and felt her eraser being pressed into my palm. I brought it up and examined it. One side was blank but on the other side in bold block letters she’d penciled “POKE ME.” Warm breath bathed the back of my neck as she delivered the same message in its most vulgar form, using the throaty whisper of a woman dizzy with desire. I thought I could meet her request. I’d been soloing with confidence for more than a year. Certainly I was willing. What I couldn’t figure out was where to do it. Unlike Gretchen’s high school guys I didn’t have a car, and I was too young to rent a motel room. The city parks were out because it was winter. Then it dawned on me that Gretchen, with her greater experience, probably knew exactly where to go. I turned the eraser over to its blank side, licked my pencil lead and printed, “OK. Where?” When Gretchen read my response, muffled laughter burst out behind me. I couldn’t understand what was funny.
On the last day of school each semester our teachers computed our grades and recorded them on our report cards. We could do as we liked if we stayed quiet and in our seats. I was doodling to kill time in math when the silence was broken by a ninth grader joining us. His smile was defiant. Randy Santeer had a rep for causing trouble and I figured he’d been sent to us so Mr. Benjamin could put a lid on him. Our math teacher was also Roosevelt’s vice principal.
Randy slid into a desk in the back row, placing him directly across the room from Gretchen. I heard a snicker behind me and turned to find the two eyeing each other lecherously, making clear the nature of their relationship. Gretchen mouthed silently the same invitation she’d made to me—I could see the words moving on her lips—while Randy grinned at her with a leer so lustful it shocked me. I glanced at Mr. Benjamin. His fountain pen was suspended in midair as he watched the hardcore flirts with deep concern. I thought he was going to say something to them but he didn’t. When they noticed him watching, their communion ended. Soon our teacher was handing out grade reports and then the bell was ringing. Math being our last class of the day, we poured through the door into Christmas vacation.
In January Gretchen returned to our class a week late and she was not the same Gretchen. Her overly bright smile was gone and so was her cockiness. Her mockery was gone, in its place a new respect for Mr. Benjamin and for others, even Horsey Girl. In one long last monologue delivered to the back of my head she explained that after our last class our teacher had hauled Randy and her into his vice principal’s office where he got them to divulge what they’d been up to. “He made me tell him the names of everybody who screwed me.” There were around fifteen boys, all students at our intermediate or at East High next door. Gretchen and the guys had to attend conferences accompanied by their parents where an officer from the Wichita PD spelled out the laws and penalties attaching to sex with a minor. All involved were suspended from school for a week. I wondered how Gretchen’s parents reacted to the news of her escapades but she didn’t go into that and I didn’t pry.
It seemed Gretchen liked the way things turned out. She was more relaxed after that—and much quieter. For the rest of the school year she left me alone. I was glad for her because I thought she’d been headed in the wrong direction. Yet I missed the old Gretchen. I missed her high spirits and the scathing humor that sometimes nailed it. Those fun qualities had been rooted out along with her premature sexuality.
The following year, eighth grade, my honors classes began. The student taking Gretchen’s place at the desk behind me in math was my friend Bob Nickel, someone eager to compete with me almost to the death in any contest two young males could devise. Bob would become valedictorian at our high school of four thousand, ace his way through Stanford, graduate first in his medical school class at the University of California, then blossom into an internationally respected pediatrician. And he wasn’t the only fierce competitor in that class. Struggling to prevail in our academic pressure cooker, we cranked up the heat on everyone to a high boil. Sadly, a bureaucratic oversight had neutralized our tried and true pressure release. Honors classes back then, especially in the sciences and math, were packed with guys and sprinkled with girls—a poor way for either sex to thrive, as we now know. For us sharp-elbowed males it meant we went largely without the softer, more fragrant buffers that had saved us from ourselves in earlier years.
These changes at school altered my social life—and to some extent my personality. As I vied with bright ambitious minds in all my courses, my innate antisocial tendencies received too much nourishment, warping me into a nerd. My native introversion deepened, boosting my allergy to group activities. In time I could click socially only when hanging with nerd buddies who shared my afflictions. We walked to school in a brain trust of four or five, convened frequently around a basketball or football, shared parent-free zones of each other’s homes, hangouts raunchy with sarcasm and mocking laughter. Safe in our brotherhood of outsiders, we rejected the dumbed-down conventional world where schoolmates our age threw parties and organized events and—we imagined—enjoyed interactions so smooth that girls and guys paired up painlessly.
My life was okay I guess, but I really missed the stimulating variety of girls that had brightened my previous schooldays. I’d become a romantic trapped in a closet, lacking what I wanted most—a girlfriend. Naturally I made her up. Attractive females I saw in school hallways, on TV and in my dreams became my one and only in a long series of intoxicating fantasies, allowing me to romance around the clock. When a teacher droned, my darling floated down to share my desk and we made out. After dinner, her devastating face peeked out at me from a parka in “The Alaskans,” a television series featuring almost too blonde Dorothy Provine. At night, the soft rock ballads flowing from the radio beside my bed brought her to me on waves of passion, racking my heart just right. And to be sure we got lucky between my sheets, driven by a hard rock beat. The only place I didn’t encounter her was in reality, and that’s because the barren nerd world where I hum-drummed through my days offered more chance of bumping into a unicorn than a living, breathing fox.
Without realizing it, I was banishing myself from the human mating pool when my little brother accidentally rescued me by introducing me to roller speed skating. Roller skating and the people who did it steered me away from the bleak future I was headed toward and into one more in line with my natural bent.