Without a boyfriend, my social life quickly resumed the pattern it held before he had entered my life. Although we remained friends, I began spending less time with Cherry Bomb and more time with Suzie Q. Also, my attention turned to the boys in my own class. They were a couple of years younger than Sheepdog had been and simply engaging them in conversation could be difficult.
In art class, the individual desks were arranged in four long columns. The desks were not turned to face the teacher’s desk, but instead faced each other. They were all pushed right up against one another creating two long, narrow surfaces split by a long and narrow aisle. Suzy Q sat directly to my right and, across from me, sat a boy I found inexplicably intriguing. I’d been wanting to talk the supposed Boy Genius since I first overheard whispers about him shortly after my arrival in the junior high school. However, he kept to himself and proved to be entirely elusive. It wasn’t an obsession, or even a goal, just one of those desires that sits in the back of your mind and you don’t even know is there until a circumstance triggers it. Now, here I was, the front of my desk pushed right up against the front of his, face to face twice a week for a year. I would have plenty of time to size up the Boy Genius.
In appearance, he was about average, without much to recommend him but nothing against him either. He seemed, like Suzy Q, to be lingering on the other side of puberty; he showed no signs of body hair and his forearms still had that child-like lack of definition. He had dark, limp, straight hair, unusually pale skin with a smattering of freckles. A little bit awkward, he managed to make it just within the group a girl might call cute, as long as the girl had a preferences for the shy, sensitive types rather than the jocks. Since he’d be sitting across from me all year, there was no need to hurry. As it was, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted from boys. I just wanted him to acknowledge me, which he didn’t.
On a daily basis, this didn’t matter much. Art class, after all, was my time to shine. Plus, I was sitting next to Suzy Q, a good friend and also a talented artist. If I was lacking confidence in most other areas of my life, art class was the one area in which I was in my element. Now that I’m older and I can view the situation with some perspective, I realize that I should have been a million times more forward, but it is only in hindsight that I can see how intimidating I must have been to boys my own age. I was still naive enough to think that getting good grades and otherwise standing out in a positive way would attract boys’ attention and get them to like me. After all, that is what attracted my attention to them.
One day, I asked the boy genius why I didn’t see him around the school often. He was in my gym class, but he wasn’t in my math class. Our math classes were divided into skill levels and I was in the highest. The Boy Genius should have been there too, or so I thought. He explained that he only spent half a day at the junior high school and, after lunch, he went to the high school where he took science and math classes that were more advanced than what was offered in our school. Years later, I would date a man who had had a similar experience when he was young and he would tell me about the intense loneliness of an adolescence with no friends. If I had known, I would have been both more persistent and gentler, but I was just a kid myself.
Flirting is a learned behavior. As a learned behavior, it has many variants and the norms can vary based on region, era or other factors. However, people who are isolated from their age peers during early adolescence frequently fail to learn it well. To a great extent, the behavior is internalized and we act out the roles while being only half conscious of them. A boy looks at you. You hold his gaze and don’t look away. He smiles. You smile back. In small incremental steps, the contact is escalated, yet frequently this is done without much thinking. The Boy Genius was being isolated from his peer group at the very age that he needed them most socially. I don’t know how the Boy Genius feels about this trade-off today, but I know that boyfriend I later dated has some regrets. My own parents took the opposite approach. Despite a high intelligence, they tried to hold me back and keep me at the same intellectual level as my peers. They put little emphasis on academic advancement beyond a basic requirement to get on the honor roll and, my mother in particular, were quite obsessed with my social development. If I was caught sitting alone reading in my room, I was punished and forced to go the the park and play with other kids. Today, I can’t help but think that there’s got to be a happy medium between the two approaches.
I realized that he was always the first one in the classroom and I started avoiding conversations with other girls in the hall and made a b-line for the classroom so I could be the second person in there. This would give me a few seconds to talk to the Boy Genius before anyone else could interrupt, though at first I said nothing. He almost always had his nose in a beat up paperback when I arrived. After a couple of months of this behavior he actually started to look up and smile when I walked in the room. Progress. Finally I asked him what he was reading. He asked, with apparent sincerity, if I was nearsighted because the typeface of the title on the cover of the book was quite large and he had never seen me wear glasses. I informed him that this was an attempt at conversation. He smiled and seemed pleased with that answer.
“Do you like Isaac Asimov?” He asked with a bright, hopeful expression.
“I’ve never read anything by him.” I responded while making the sort of eye contact that says, “Please continue,” however the Boy Genius’ bright, hopeful expression faded.
It brightened again; obviously he’d thought of a new conversational opening. “Who is your favorite science fiction author?”
I said that I had never read any science fiction. He said nothing more and went back to his book.
I never did see him with any other friends either. He wasn’t bullied as far as I can recall, simply ignored. At the risk of sounding a bit full of myself, I think he made a mistake in deflecting what was an attempt at an offer of friendship. His parents had somehow convinced him that because of his intelligence he was different than all the other kids. However, intelligence is not a binary option, smart or not-smart. Ignoring for now the difficulty in defining and measuring intelligence, it is a gradation. What I’m pretty sure Boy Genius didn’t know is that I may very well have had the second highest IQ in the class. Without a doubt, if someone had ranked the students by IQs, the two of us would have been in the top five. As I mentioned earlier, Suzy Q herself would graduate from high school early and major in math. But I didn’t give out any of the other social cues that say, “This person is smart,” according to society. I was turning out to be pretty, maybe not movie star gorgeous, but too pretty to be smart. I was short. There was definitely a feeling in our town that Jews were smarter than non-Jews and I wasn’t Jewish. I had an interest in art. I wasn’t nerdy in the least. It was the first hint I would get that boys would assume that I wasn’t as smart as I was.