Typically, it is the female of the species that lights the fuse. Girls are more mature than boys in those awkward pre-teen years, and they usually lead the way with shier and socially clueless boys. When I was in seventh grade, it started. "You know, Maria likes you" one of Maria's friends would whisper to some unsuspecting boy in the schoolyard. "Huh" would come the sophisticated reply. (Seventh grade guys are more interested in sports than girls, and a little slow on the uptake.) "She likes you" whispers Maria's friend a bit more urgently, usually accompanied by a punch in the arm to shake Mr. Right out of his lethargy. What Maria's friend doesn't know is that Mr. Right has no understanding what the term "likes" means in this context, and even if he did, wouldn't have any idea what to do about it.
In the 1950s, nobody talked about sex. You never even heard the word mentioned. Adolescent boys would notice their bodies changing and certain stirrings coming over them, but nobody was there to explain how normal this was. In our Catholic school the Franciscan Brothers who taught us were not the most reliable guides in this wilderness. They might obliquely refer to these feelings as temptations of the devil to be vigorously resisted by doing endless push-ups. And so each boy struggled alone, not realizing that all his classmates were navigating the same uncharted waters. It was an uncomfortable time, full of uncertainty. Through it all, girls were those mysterious creatures that inhabited the classrooms in the other half of the school building.
My earliest memories of any social contact with girls are the party games like Spin the Bottle and Post Office that were played in someone's basement. Of course the girls (like Eve at the dawning of time) took the lead in organizing these recreations. There was always another room to which the boy and girl singled out to kiss would adjourn, accompanied by the hoots and jeers of their friends. At first the guys were mortified by these activities, but soon learned to happily join in. Suddenly, Moms were finding lipstick on collars, and the race was on. Guys and gals began pairing off and spending time together. Hand-holding in public (never within a mile of school), going to movies, and sharing an ice cream soda at the neighborhood were typical behaviors.
The next step in this drama was called "going steady". Sometimes this new phase of the relationship was cemented with an inexpensive ring or school sweater, but more often than not, it just became understood. Going steady meant you couldn't date other people and that you were off the market for all intents and purposes. Games of Spin the Bottle were rigged so that couples who were going steady always got each other as partners. Some of these tween romances lasted right up to the altar, but usually the road to finding a life partner was littered with a few broken hearts. The increasingly high divorce rate speaks to the fact that lasting compatibility between women and men is elusive...a minefield filled with hazards that can tank any romance.
As a society we need to do more to help boys and girls ease into social relationships. Despite the odds, some of us are lucky enough to find that person who completes us; for this we are most grateful.
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