I was in tenth grade. I was fifteen. And I had a tortuous crush on my neighbor’s sixth-grade homeroom teacher.
For the nineteen-seventies, Mr. McConnell was a foxy man. He had a handlebar mustache and a wedge of brown hair that was flat on the top and puffed out in a wide arc to the sides of his head, only to be cut off below the ears. I thought he was dreamy. If today I saw a photo of him as he was then, I would probably think he looked like a porn star. But in the seventies, any man with a ‘stache, tight pants, an open shirt, and a little bit of chest hair looked like a porn star.
My crush began in the eighth grade, when I would encounter Mr. McConnell leading his columns of students, lined up two by two, from the lunchroom back to their class. We eighth graders would be on our way to our lunch shift. Every day we would pass in the hallway. I’d stare at him with unspeakable longing. Mind you, I was sexually active by then. I’d taken hundreds and hundreds of fucks. I was hopping on my bike and hitting the local parks for sex the minute I got home from school, most days. I’d worked sex parties for cash. I’d had a (sadly unconsummated) affair with my sixth-grade teacher, for the love of gawd. But when I was confronted with a crush, my reaction was to go slack-jawed. My mouth would dry up. My eyes would have the mournful expression of a bloodhound’s.
Little by little, I gleaned what small bits of information I could about him. He was thirty-six. He was married, though his wife lived in her native England. His first name was Nathaniel.
Oh, how I ached to be the boyfriend of Nathaniel McConnell of the handlebar mustache, the hairy knuckles. and the smooth, ironed shirts with the scoop-necked t-shirts underneath and the neatly-tied neckties hanging to his slim waist and with the alleged wife. I knew the wife was a myth, a cover, a beard. England? Whatever. It was almost as if he’d never heard of the my girlfriend, who lives in Canada cover. I could’ve made up better lies than that in my sleep.
Every day that year at 12:35 in the afternoon I would see him approaching, his class trailing behind him, and I would look at that impossibly handsome face and covet it for my own.
And then he started looking back.
It was about a month into the school year when it happened. He would search me out in the crowd as we approached each other, nail his eyes on mine, and then, at our perigee, the corners of his lips would raise into a smile. Day after day it would happen, so I was certain it was not a mistake. I would then go into lunch with butterflies in my stomach, unable to eat or concentrate. No wonder I was so skinny.
All through eighth and ninth grade we exchanged our daily glances and smiles, fleeting and sweet. When I would be walking alone in the halls and happened to encounter him, he would even sometimes bestow upon me a much-treasured ‘Hi there.’
And then, when I was in tenth grade—the high school and middle school shared the same building—my neighbor got him as her homeroom teacher. I was jealous. It drove me crazy that this twerp, this nobody, this little sixth grader got to see him every day and bask in his glorious mustachioed presence for hours at a time. I would grind my teeth whenever she dropped his name casually in conversation, with a “Oh, Mr. McConnell said this” here and a “Mr. McConnell thinks that” there. The only thing I wanted to hear was that Mr. McConnell said he wanted to strip me down and have his wicked way with me.
It was during the tenth grade that I was at the peak of my fascination with ancient Egypt as well; for years I’d wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. I’d seen it as my natural destiny, somehow. In fifth grade I won a city-wide art ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ contest with a watercolor self-portrait of myself posed in front of a pyramid. The prize involved someone from the administration erecting a pyramid in our school auditorium (it was made out of sticks and bedsheets, and its construction did not involve slave labor) and getting someone from the local museum to visit and give our class a talk about ancient Egyptians and their daily lives. The museum guy brought a mummy foot in a plexiglass case. I felt oddly gypped when I wasn’t allowed to keep it. In sixth grade, the King Tut exhibit came to the U.S. and I went to see it with my parents. I felt as if they’d flown it over just for me.
The fire continued throughout grade school. By tenth grade I had an especial enthrallment with hieroglyphics. I devoted massive amounts of time memorizing them and how they were constructed. I pored over The Book of the Dead. And one day, when she was hanging around our house waiting for her mom to come home, I showed the next-door neighbor a fun way to create her own hieroglyphics. “This is cool,” she said, after one of my impromptu lessons. “You should come show it my class!”
“Excellent suggestion,” said my dad, who was passing through. He had an eye on my resumes for the colleges I’d be sending out the following year. How many other kids could put hieroglyphics instructor on their applications? “I’ll see what I can do.”
What he could do, apparently, was talk Mr. McConnell into letting me teach about hieroglyphics in his class for one hour a day, one day a week, four weeks in a row, at the beginning of the next semester. Ordinarily I would’ve met my dad’s meddling with a surly teenaged reluctance. But this particular scheme involved Mr. McConnell, and as long as I got to see that dreamy face of his up close, I would’ve taught anything my dad suggested. Even clog dancing.
It was my first experience teaching—oddly enough, I was fantastic at it. Probably because I had teachers for parents. For some reason, Mr. McConnell never met with me to make sure I knew what the hell I was doing. He just let me into the classroom and watched from the back, arms crossed, while I tried not to get distracted.
Much of the time I was in my neighbor’s class I spent helping the kids understand how Egyptian pictographs represented specific sounds, and how those pictures and sounds, combined in different ways, could make entire words. I started out with them making their own hieroglyphics. They used construction paper and glue to make cartouches of their own names—oval loops containing the pictographs they’d come up with to represent the sounds.
It was a lot like rebuses. One kid was named Monique. She came up very quickly with a pictograph of a person with a round mouth who was obviously in pain, and then another of someone (or at least their heel) leaping into the air to escape a rat. Moan + Eeek! = Monique. A kid named Walter drew a picture of a wall, and then of a turd. Everyone thought that was hilarious. Mr. McConnell did, too. And the kids were loving it. Around the classroom I would go, person by person, helping the kids break down their names into their component parts and brainstorming a pictograph to represent it. Mr. McConnell would help out, squatting down and murmuring with the students to pass the time along.
At the end of each session, he would stand beside me and tell the class to thank me for the great time they had. I wasn’t so much grateful for the obedient chorus of thanks as I was for the warmth of his hand on the small of my back, where he would always place it while we stood there together. It was as intimate as we ever got.
The fourth and final session happened to coincide with my birthday. Every student had, at that point, two cartouches of their names created from construction paper to take home—one with their own hieroglyphics, and another with the real Egyptian pictographs. We’d spent most of the class with the students showing off their handiwork and explaining why they’d chosen the various images, and when it was all over, Mr. McConnell came to my side and as usual, put his hand in the small of my back, which longed to be touched.
“We heard it’s your birthday,” he said to me. I’d not said a thing—I flushed at the thought he’d actually done some research on me. “So as a gesture of appreciation, we made you something.”
From his desk he pulled a simply enormous homemade birthday card. It was easily two feet high by a foot and a half wide, and decorated with glitter and smiley faces and stickers and everything a sixth-grader loves. Inside were wishes for a happy birthday, with all the names of the students in big old magic market letters. In a neat cursive, in the page’s center, was my crush’s signature. Nathaniel McConnell. “Oh wow,” I said aloud. I was genuinely stunned. “Thank you guys!”
The classroom was moderately noisy at that point when Mr. McConnell once more put his hand on my back. “So how old are you today?” he asked.
“Sixteen,” I told him.
I remember his voice as being intimate in the words that followed. “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed?”
Whatever poise I’d developed around Mr. McConnell during that month instantly vanished. I stood there with my jaw hanging open and my tongue unable to produce speech. If I know myself, I probably turned beet red. When my vision stopped swimming, I gathered my materials, took my card, and spirited myself out of that classroom.
And that is as intimate as Mr. McConnell and I ever became, sadly. But wow. It meant a lot to me at the time. I saw him for the rest of the semester when our classes would pass each other down the lunchroom hallway. His eyes would bore into mine, and I would stare at him, mute and longing. We’d exchange smiles. But as much as I longed for him to find me in some forgotten corner of the school building—in my imagination, it was always the shop—and shove me against the wall and press his mustache against my tender boy lips, it simply never happened.
What I do have, though, is a sweet memory of the warmth of his hand, the tones of his gentle voice, and a birthday memory of his words to me. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. As far as mementos go, I’d say I came out pretty well.
I know I kept that card at my parents’ house until after I graduated from college. I don’t know where it is today—my folks probably threw it out. I wish I still had one of my middle school yearbooks, though. I’d like to look through its pages at the faculty photos and see if Mr. McConnell’s face is anything like my memory of it, intense and brown-eyed, alert and alive.