The vagaries of love are inscribed all over the school.
The breakups, the unrequited longings, the vows of eternal devotion -- the kids write about all of it on their desks, in the margins of their textbooks, on the mirror in the upstairs bathroom, inside the two giant playhouses that stand in the grassy area in front of the school. They even scrawl their messages on the plastic playground equipment in the city park that borders Booker T's campus.
The school's premier site for graffiti remains the two wooden picnic tables next to the gym. The dozens of messages scratched into the tables testify to the whims of middle school romance.
One message promises:
- Jesse and Samantha
- 4 Eva
- Tyrie & Autumn
- 4 a week
The love is almost always short-lived. Some couples manage to stay together for several months. Most walk away after a few weeks, a few days, even a few hours.
"My record," says one seventh-grade girl, "was five minutes."
The volatility is due, at least partly, to restrictions imposed from above. Middle school kids can't drive yet; most of them aren't even allowed to go on anything resembling a date. Once a boy and girl have admitted their mutual attraction, their options quickly run out. They can soak up one another's company at school, whisper sweet nothings on the phone, flirt online. If their parents give the okay, maybe they'll manage to see a movie or hang out at a party together. But usually that's about it. After the initial thrill of a new attachment has worn off, there's almost nothing left to do but break up.
As if these limitations weren't enough, adolescents have little or no experience with the mysterious ways of romance. Suffering through so many physical and emotional changes at such a rapid-fire pace, they tend to be unstable even when they're not worrying about the sweat stains under their arms and struggling to remember if they're supposed to close their eyes as they move in for a first kiss.
Out of all the romantic disasters that can strike seventh-graders, one of the most painful is falling hopelessly for someone who does not feel the same attraction. Even worse, perhaps, is landing on the opposite side of that equation.
Consider, just for a moment, the dilemma into which Kalie Wells has been plunged. Carlo's pangs are real enough. But imagine what it must be like for Kalie, being courted so persistently by someone she has no desire to hurt. Without intending it, Carlo has placed her in an impossible position, conferring on her a terrible power.
In a conversation one day inside Booker T's lunchroom, Kalie confesses bewilderment. She's still not sure why Carlo picked her, or why he declines to find someone else to worship. What exactly is she supposed to do?
"I don't understand why he likes me so much," she says, sitting with her usual circle of girlfriends. "He hardly knows me."
Kalie has a point. She never asked to be declared a goddess; that's a construction someone else has projected onto her. It has nothing to do with reality. She is not a vision. She is a girl. A pretty one, yes, but still just a girl, all of 12 1/2, with her brown hair in a pony tail and a touch of acne on her face and, at this moment, a few potato chip crumbs stuck in her braces.
As she talks about her Carlo problem, her tablemates listen with undisguised glee. The whole thing makes them giggle. Kalie keeps glancing at them. Her tongue sweeps over the braces, trying to dislodge the crumbs.
Eager to dispense with this topic as quickly as possible, she insists that she does like Carlo, but only as a friend. She doesn't think he's creepy or anything; as far as she can tell, he's really nice.
"There's nothing wrong with him," she says, shooting looks at her smirking friends. "He just doesn't know me."
At home, Kalie's parents are torn. Harrell and Eileen Wells have never met Carlo. But judging from the few bits of information they've managed to extract from their daughter, he sounds like a decent young man, sweet, respectful, the kind of friend they'd like for Kalie.
Kalie's parents know enough not to interfere with her decisions. They just hope she goes easy on the poor boy.
One day, when Eileen Wells is cleaning her daughter's room, she finds a note from Carlo. It's in plain view, on top of Kalie's schoolbooks. Eileen studies the unfolded sheet of paper, balancing her curiosity against her daughter's privacy. Finally she reasons that if Kalie didn't want anyone to see the note, she wouldn't have left it out in the open.
Eileen picks up the paper and tries to decipher Carlo's small, crabbed handwriting. In the note, he is asking Kalie why she won't go out with him. Is it
his hair? Is he too short? Whatever the problem, he vows to fix it.
I'll change, he writes. Just tell me.
Carlo's aching words apparently haven't made much of an impression on Kalie. But his naked plea pierces her mother. Clearly, the note has been written by a boy still young enough not to have learned how much a broken heart can truly hurt.
Eileen finds her husband and tells him what she has discovered, what she has read. As Harrell listens, his eyes fill with tears.