The first day of high school could have been the worst day of my life. But it wasn’t.
It was the fall of 1984, nearly THIRTY YEARS AGO (*gulp*). As freshmen, we were invited to pick one elective course in our schedules. I picked Creative Writing.
As it turned out, I was the ONLY freshman taking Creative Writing. This meant I knew no one in the class. This meant that the entire class, other than me, was made up of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. These upperclassmen all seemed much more sophisticated than I was…probably because they were. At least one of them had a mustache. It was a sea of Led Zeppelin t-shirts, leather jackets, perfectly-applied makeup, perfectly-feathered hair, and at least one varsity football jersey. Some of them looked old enough to teach the class themselves, though it was actually taught by Ms. Fuggazzato, also known as Ms. Lee, who didn’t have her own designated classroom, so boldly rolled her teacherly belongings around in a shopping cart.
Any one of these details would have been too much for me at the time, but all of them together were utterly terrifying. How would I ever fit in with these people, who seemed so much older and more worldly — and who all seemed to know each other? And more important, who was I going to sit with at lunch? Creative Writing was scheduled for fifth period, which was lunch period, which meant that you typically sat with your classmates. It was a foregone conclusion that no one would want to sit with me, a lowly freshman, who wore braces, and whose unruly hair only partially feathered.
These issues preoccupied me during that initial class, to the point where I didn’t pay attention to anything Ms. Fuggazzato was saying. It was only the first day of school, not even halfway through the day, and already, I was in full-on crisis mode. When the bell finally rang for lunch, I had already devised a plan where I would sneak off and eat lunch in the nearest bathroom. I was that desperate.
“Hey. Wanna sit with me at lunch?”
The question came from a girl standing at the back of the room, seemingly waiting for me as everyone else filed out. The girl was wearing a red sweater (or sweatshirt, my memory is hazy) and she had brown shoulder-length hair and bangs. She was smiling. I’d never met this girl, had never seen her before, and yet, here she was, extending an invitation to me.
I said yes. I followed her to the cafeteria, and at first, I have to admit, I wondered if she might be a weirdo. Because, in my mind, only a weirdo would invite me to sit with them. Thankfully, my instincts were dead-on, because Paula — that was her name, Paula — did turn out to be a weirdo. MY kind of weirdo. She had a quirky sense of humor, and her friends were funny and snarky, too, and she was inclusive of me from the get-go. I don’t think I could have picked a better table to lunch with if I tried. Even better, Paula made her own bag lunch, and even though it was the same sandwich every day — ham and cheese on a soft, eggy roll with pickle relish — it was a revelation to me, after many years of my mom’s half-hearted bag lunches. My mom’s sandwiches were often inscrutable, if not completely inedible (cream cheese and grape jelly on a poppy seed roll was one of her “specialties”), so I was always hungry; Paula always made sure to let me have a bite or two of hers, and they were delicious and somehow sustaining. She was generous to me in every way, and in every way I needed it most.
I recount this story because I think of Paula’s kindness every now and then. I don’t know if she ever really knew just how much her initial gesture meant to me; back then, I was probably too self-conscious to tell her outright. And I never really asked her what led her to ask me to sit with her at lunch in the first place, maybe because I assumed my panic that day was palpable, and she simply felt sorry for me.
Paula and I were friends throughout my freshman/her sophomore year (and even partnered on at least one creative writing project, a Halloween-esque short story in which we murdered all our characters in increasingly gory ways, much to Ms. Lee’s distaste) and the next, though we ended up drifting apart. But I still think of her, and her smile (and her sandwiches), and the miracle that was her appearance in my life.
Paula, you saved me, and I can’t thank you enough. I might still be eating my lunch in the bathroom (figuratively, at least), if not for you.