So what? Every boy in the fifth grade had a crush on her. Why should I be any different?
Of course, none of us let on that we liked her. I mean, she was … you know … a girl. Never mind that she was blonde, blue-eyed and had a breathtaking smile. None of that was sufficient justification for publicly acknowledging feelings or anything like that. But it provided all the incentive any of us needed for teasing and chasing JoAnn every chance we got.
Especially chasing. We chased JoAnn every recess, rain or shine. Sometimes she seemed to enjoy the attention; sometimes she didn’t. We weren’t exactly sensitive in that regard. The only thing that mattered to us was the thrill of the chase and the possibility, however remote, of making some socially acceptable physical contact — whatever that may have been.
But JoAnn was fast and clever, a combination that always left us winded, frustrated and absolutely fascinated. To this day I wonder what we would have done if we had ever been able to catch her. But as I recall, we only came close once — the same day that the chasing ended.
It was about this time of year, and the streets and sidewalks were wet with moisture from an early autumn rainstorm. That same rainstorm had robbed us of our usual outdoor recess activities, and my friends and I were bursting with pent-up energy.
Which is probably why we decided to chase JoAnn home from school, even though we’d never done that before. When she saw us coming, she took off running and the chase was on. She was way out in front and just about home when she hit a patch of rain-slick asphalt. Suddenly, the cutest little feet in the fifth grade went out from under her, and she sprawled on the asphalt. The short skirt she was wearing offered no protection to her knees, which absorbed most of the impact of her fall. By the time we caught up with her, she was already picking herself up, tears of embarrassment and pain streaming down her face.
Our band of chasers came to a stop a few feet from JoAnn. We stood there, breathing heavily, uncertain what to do next. Clearly there would never be a better opportunity to catch her. But somehow, that didn’t seem important anymore. Finally, George spoke: “Are you OK?”
I know — not exactly dripping with warmth and compassion. But considering that it came from an 11-year-old boy, it was practically a soliloquy.
Now it was JoAnn’s turn to respond. None of us would have blamed her for lashing out at us. But she simply responded to the question that had been asked: “I don’t know. I think so.”
By graciously choosing not to attack us even though we deserved it, she encouraged our reciprocation. We collected her scattered books and papers and then we helped her home. I carried her books. George and Ron each supported an arm to help her walk. Dean, Don and Albert offered to trade places with George and Ron about 20 times each.
By the time we got to her house, JoAnn was no longer crying, despite painful-looking scrapes on her knees. Something else had happened, too. A budding friendship had begun to grow between all seven fifth-graders.
“Thanks, you guys,” she said as she took her books from me and started in the front door.
“Uh, JoAnn,” I said, just before she closed the door. “Look, we’re … you know … sorry about what happened. We didn’t want you to get hurt or anything.”
She bestowed one of her smiles on us. “I know,” she said. “It’s OK.”
I don’t need to tell you that the story probably would have had a different ending if any of us had reacted poorly to the pressure of the awkward moment — especially JoAnn. Repentance and forgiveness are symbiotic virtues, often feeding off each other. In our case, the result of that symbiosis was the birth of new friendships that are still fondly recalled nearly 50 years later.
Oh, and by the way, we never chased JoAnn again. Turns out friendship isn’t only more pleasant than animosity. It’s also a lot less tiring.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr