Forty-six years ago I became a freshman at El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. The number of young women on my horizon was zero. I was deathly afraid of girls.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and I was a desperate man. I signed up for dance classes in P.E. I would learn to dance and become a combination of Arthur Murray and Elvis Presley. (Yeah, I know that dates me a little.) Step, step, slide and swivel your hips. Girls would flock to me.
It wasn’t until the day of the class that I learned the magnitude of my mistake. I would have to dance with girls to learn how to dance and there they were, lined up on the opposite side of the gymnasium, staring at me.
“God, why did I do this to myself,” I thought as I stared across the distance at twenty females who I knew were thinking, “anybody but Curtis.”
“Okay, boys,” the female P.E. teacher announced in a stern voice, “I want you to walk across the room now and politely ask a girl to dance with you.” Wow, that sounded like fun.
Reluctantly, I began that long walk across the gymnasium floor. I was a condemned man and the gallows were looming. I walked slower. Maybe an earthquake would strike. Maybe the Russians would shoot off an IBM missile. Maybe one of the surly seniors would throw a match in a wastebasket and the fire alarm would go off.
I approached the line and looked for a sign. One of the girls would smile at me and crook her finger. But the girls looked exceedingly grim. A few looked desperate, like deer caught in the headlights of the proverbial 18 wheeler rushing toward them at 90 miles per hour. I picked out the one who looked most frightened on the theory that she would be the least likely to reject me.
“Uh, would you care to dance,” I managed to blurt out.
“Uh, okay,” she responded with about the same level of enthusiasm she would have if I had offered her a large plate of raw liver. It was P.E. Dance Ground Zero after all, and she wasn’t allowed to say no. We were destined to be a great couple.
“You will put your left hand in the middle of the back five inches above the waist line.” The teacher, who was beginning to sound like a drill sergeant, carefully described what we would do with our hands. It was quite clear that there would be minimal contact and no contact with behinds.
“With your right hand and arm, you will hold the girl away from you.” There would be no accidental brushing of breasts either. I assumed the correct position with marine-like precision. I was going to get this right.
I studied the chart the teacher had put up to show me what I was supposed to do with my two left feet. I listened carefully to the lecture on rhythm and down beats. I watched with intensity as she demonstrated: step, step, slide, step-step.
All too soon it was our turn. A scratchy record blasted out a long-since-dead composer’s waltz. I didn’t know who it was but it wasn’t Elvis or even Benny Goodman. With one sweaty palm in the middle of the girl’s back and the other sweaty hand holding her a proper distance away, I moved out on the floor. Step, step, slide, step-step.
One, two, and three, four-five the coach barked out. My feet more or less followed the proscribed pattern as I avoided stepping on the girl’s toes. I tried a turn and managed to avoid running into another couple. Ever so slightly I relaxed. Maybe things would be okay. Maybe I would have fun. Maybe Hell would freeze over.
“Stop class!” the teacher yelled as she blew her whistle and yanked the needle across the record, adding another scratch. We dutifully came to a halt. What now?
“I want everyone to watch Curtis and his partner,” she announced.
“Hey, this is more like it,” I thought to myself. Not only was I surviving my first day of dance class, I was being singled out to demonstrate. I smiled, waited for the music to start, and boldly moved out on the floor where many had trod before. Step, step, slide, step-step. We made it through all of three progressions when the teacher abruptly blew her whistle again.
“And that, Class,” she proclaimed triumphantly, “is not how you do it. Curtis is moving like he is late for an important appointment in the bathroom.”
The class roared… and I shrank. I don’t know how my partner felt, but I wanted a hole to climb in, preferably a deep hole with a steel door that I could slam shut. And I was more than embarrassed, I was mad. My normal sense of humor had galloped off into the sunset.
“You don’t teach someone to dance by embarrassing him,” I mumbled. An angry look crossed the teacher’s face and she started to reply. I turned my back and walked for the door.
“Where do you think you are going Curtis? Get back here!” she demanded in a raised voice.
“I am leaving,” I replied without turning, calm now the decision made. The class was deadly quiet. This was much more interesting than P.E. Other kids might challenge teachers, might walk out of a class, and might not even care.
But not Curt. This was a guy who always did his homework, participated in class discussions, and was respectful toward teachers.
I reached the door and put my hand on the handle.
“If you walk out that door, you may as well walk home,” the teacher barked. “I will personally see to it that you are suspended from school.”
I opened the door, walked out, and went straight to the office of the chairman of the P.E. Department, Steve O’Meara. Steve worked with my Dad in the summer as an assistant electrician but I knew him primarily as my science teacher.
He was a big man, gruff, and strong as a bull elephant, a jock’s jock. He demonstrated his strength by participating in the annual wheelbarrow race at the El Dorado County Fair. The race commemorated the fact that John Studebaker of automobile fame had obtained his start in Placerville manufacturing wheelbarrows.
The County’s strongest men would line up with their wheelbarrows at the starting line and then rush to fill a gunny sack with sand at the starter’s gun. They would then push their wheelbarrows and loads at breakneck speed around an obstacle course that included mud holes, a rock-strewn path, fence barriers and other such challenges.
In addition to making it across the finish line first, the winner had to have fifty plus pounds of sand in his gunny sack. Underweight and he was disqualified. Steve was always our favorite to win and rarely disappointed us. He had a very loud voice.
“What’s up, Curt,” he roared when I entered his office. I knew Steve didn’t eat kids for lunch but you always wondered a little.
“I think you are supposed to expel me,” I replied. He started to laugh until he saw my expression. Mortification and anger on the face of a 14-year-old are never a pretty sight.
He became serious. “Sit down and tell me what’s happening,” he suggested in an almost gentle voice.
Ten minutes later I walked out of his office with a reprieve. I didn’t have to go back to the dance class and could finish out the quarter playing volleyball. Steve would have a discussion with the dance instructor.
I imagine she ended up about as unhappy as I was. At least I hoped so. I entertained a small thought that she would hesitate the next time before traumatizing some gawky kid whose only goal in attending her class was to become a little less gawky. It would be a long time before I would step onto a dance floor again.
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