The moment my pants and briefs hit the floor of the lunch room I knew that Stephanie and I would be permanently linked.
Elementary school was a big deal in late-seventies Prince Edward Island. The province had just amalgamated dozens of small community schools into large modern education centres. Rural kids were bused from the country to join their city peers. Looking back, I don’t think much thought was put into the possible repercussions of this kind of social engineering. Conflict was imminent. After all, even in tiny PEI, the chasm between rural and urban life was great, especially for us kids.
Grade six was the senior class at West Kent Elementary, and surviving to this grade unscathed was an achievement. One crisp September morning that year I remember planning to squint my eyes and scowl to intimidate the new grade ones. I knew what a wedgie was, for sure, but it wasn’t going to happen to me anymore! But I also knew my place, even in senior year. Grade six was when I realized that the word clique was not just the sound you made with your tongue to attract cattle to the trough. It was a word that my rural bus-pals used to describe groups of downtown kids, especially the girls. We hated them, yet loved them so.
Stephanie McNichol was the leader of a grade six clique of girls from what we called Snob Hill, an upper-class area of Charlottetown where the white clapboard houses were just slightly higher above sea level than the rest of the city. Stephanie was cute and outgoing, despite the braces, and she knew it. This, combined with her freckles and long red hair gave her a unique Island edge that beckoned: Follow me. Unlike Anne Shirley, however, she was no outsider. She commanded the devotion of a large gaggle of girls, and the confused awe of us boys.
I first noticed Stephanie in gym class. She looked great in ADIDAS gym pants, the kind with stripes down the legs and straps under the feet. All Day I Dreamed About Stephanie. It was all quite innocent, really. After all, this was grade six in 1979. Sex for me was a well-thumbed section of the World Book Encyclopedia. To put it another way, I remember spending an entire math class trying to figure out why a friend was so excited to tell me that he had found a penthouse under his Dad’s bed.
Let’s just say that although I was aware of her, I doubt that Stephanie knew I existed. Then, very unexpectedly, our worlds collided. One day about half-way through the year, the lunch room was restless. Someone was playing Video Killed the Radio Star, again. I was just finishing my p&j sandwich when Stephanie came to me, took my hand and marched me to the front of the room. The nervous titter among the girls should have tipped me off – was it a dreaded double-dare? Stephanie turned me toward the hushed class, hugged me from behind, and whispered in my ear that she was going to do some magic. All I had to do was lift my arms and let her touch my ribs. She said I would feel light. Wow, I thought, I was being included! A moment later my pants were at my ankles.
The rest of the day was a blur. We both spent the afternoon in the principal’s office, in separate corners. Stephanie was unrepentant, and I was in tears. The next day the lunch room returned to normal. We never spoke about what happened. Despite the upheaval, the social structure quickly settled to its natural state.
Stephanie and I went through the rest of secondary school together, sharing the same space, but not as friends. When gym classes were suddenly (and unfortunately) segregated, I’d see her less. But then there was concert band: we were both first string of different instruments. Likewise, the rural-urban divide continued into high school; we bus slaves looked on in envy at city-student cars parked a few blocks from home. In those melodramatic teenage years, Stephanie was in the play and I was in the pit. She was often on the front page of the school newspaper that I edited from a corner of the library, far from the centre of things.
We graduated in 1986 and went our separate ways without good-byes. Over the years, I’ve occasionally wondered: Where’s Stephanie McNichol? Once I heard she was a finalist for Miss PEI, and another day I saw her, red and freckled in a sweater catalogue. We still had little in common, until last year when my wife and I lost an infant son. In the weeks after our ordeal, people said I should call Stephanie – she had lost a baby too. I didn’t call, but when I bumped into her in Charlottetown last September something strange and magical happened.
She knew, and I knew. The chasm was breached with an unspoken warmth. We embraced for the first time since grade six. I felt light. No clothes came off, and this time we both cried, a little.
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 9 2002, C2.