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February 29, 2004

  • This Magic Moment
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    It was a moment that changed my life. One dance. One slow dance, in a school gymnasium, in the autumn of 1982.

    I was just about 13 years old, and I had just started grade eight at a new school, E.J. James Public School in Oakville. I had a bad experience at my last Oakville public school, which led to a year at a private military school. E.J. James was a compromise offered by a School Board Superintendent who was embarrassed by my past treatment. As a result, for my last year of Junior High, every day I was taken by taxi to a school more than 10 miles away.

    E.J. James was in East Oakville. It’s hard for non-Oakvillians to understand the distinction. East Oakville was upper-middle (and upper) class. East Oakville was monster home country. People who think of Oakville as one of Canada’s richest towns (by per capita income) are often thinking of East Oakville. That said, back in 1982, I don’t remember feeling that out of place coming from a bungalow in North Oakville. Looking back, though, I was probably disadvantaged from the start.

    Looking like a dork probably did me no favours, either.

    Believe me, that’s no exaggeration. My hair back then had a style-repellent property that was only broken once I started growing it long ten years later. My wardrobe—bought from the Sears catalogue—didn’t exactly stand a chance with the East Oakville crowd either.

    I was a nerd back in the days before Bill Gates took revenge for us all. I read, worse, I collected comic books. I idolized the Air Farce. My idea of supporting school spirit (after Student Council, which I failed to be elected) was a desire to be school photographer.

    What was amazing was that my fellow classmates sensed it, like a shark, or a school of piranhas. I’ll never forget my first day at E.J. James—which was, due to various wrangling with my parents and the School Board Superintendent, a week or so after everyone else—everyone was already sizing me up, teasing me, dissecting my reactions, dissecting myself.

    Years later, I met up with one of my by then former classmates. We were going to the same College, and he sought me out because he felt bad for the way he treated me. The sad truth was, I didn’t even remember him—the whole thing was just freakishly normative to me, as it had been for my entire life through elementary school and Junior High.

    On my first day of school, one of my classmates, Dave, asked me if I liked a particular girl. Her name was Shelley. She was very pretty, popular, and she had stunning blue eyes.

    “Uh, yeah.” I said. It was a tactical show of weakness I would later regret.

    Dave and his cronies spent the next weeks bothering me about asking out Shelley. Shelley was always very nice to me—she found me funny. However, even if I had the nerve to ask her out, she wasn’t going to go out with me. Cliches exist because they have truth to them, and the notion of nerds never getting the popular girls in Junior High is possibly among the most truthful cliches. Shelley, it turns out, was going out with Dave.

    The revelation that Juliet was going out with Iago (and I was, at best, Rosecrans and, at worst, one of the Gravediggers) took place just before the first dance of the school year. I had never gone to a school dance before. I remember being excited about it though. Maybe I could impress some girl. Maybe I could impress Shelley.

    I should have seen the humiliation that lay ahead.

    It all started with writing on the request list on the Student Council bulletin board that I wanted “Jack and Diane” by Human League. This little gaffe entered me into the first circle of hell.

    Dances in Junior High were held right after school (I think we were eventually allowed a “night dance” later that year). They were held in the “old” gymnasium (E.J. James had two—a “new” one built that year, and an old one that like all public schools built in the 1950s had a stage at one end because it was designed to be multipurpose). Some of the scariest moments of my young life—a life which, at that point, had endured a year in Military School and a terrifying night lost in the woods—took place then:

    ...Putting my hand on the gym door…

    Pushing it open, to see, an artificially created dark (and the sun still crept through those industrial green curtains) and people milling about. Some of them were even dancing…

    And I didn’t know how to dance.

    But all that paled in comparison to the main event of my emotional turmoil.

    Future biographers—unlikely though that prospect may be—should note that I was a “late” developer in the same way that the US was “late” for World War II. Asking someone to dance was like asking someone to date me. At the time, it was the most important question I would ask anyone.

    And with this self-imposed burden, I asked Shelley if she would like to dance.

    I no longer remember the words, just the sentiment. She was, as ever, unfailingly nice in turning me down.

    I resumed wandering the edges of the gym, cowed by the twin terrors of fast dances and asking anyone else.

    And then came a slow song.

    And someone tapped me on the shoulder.

    At the time, I didn’t know her name; I just knew that she belonged to the clique of popular girls. She was beautiful—she had lovely brown hair and she was tall for her age.

    “Would you like to dance?” She asked.

    Her name, I would later gather, was Jennifer Moses, and to this day she committed what was, to my mind, perhaps the single greatest act of kindness anyone has performed for me.

    To this day, I have no idea what possessed her to do this. Sympathy? Pity? Compassion? Ultimately, those are the motivations adults attribute to these things. When I was a month shy of my 13th Birthday, she was the first girl who wanted to dance with me, and she was one of the most popular and beautiful girls in the school. That’s all that mattered.

    We danced to Journey’s “Open Arms”.  I never was happier for a power rock anthem in my life.

    For the remainder of the school year, at every subsequent dance, I would ask Jen Moses to dance to that song. Even after she gently rebuffed my advances that I naturally transferred from Shelley to her (she had a boyfriend as well), Jen would still always slow dance with me that one time every dance.

    As the year progressed, I found niches within the school to belong to. I excelled in the drama club, and became a finalist in the school’s public speaking competition (speaking about, naturally, the history of comic books). I found classmates who liked me, and I was able to make friends. I even found a geeky girl to have a crush on (and still nothing happened!) By the end of the year, I was enormously fond of E.J. James Public School. My favourite teacher there became the superintendent of the Halton District School Board.

    To this day, if I hear a bar or two of “Open Arms” I remember a moment in a school gym where a popular girl broke ranks and asked me to dance—an act of friendship and compassion that has always stayed with me. I remember the sweetest gesture, the most romantic experience of my life, even though no actual romance took place.

    It was a moment that changed my life. One dance. One slow dance, in a school gymnasium, in the autumn of 1982.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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