The Fifth Grade Girlfriend

Eileen W. Fisher

© Copyright 2018 by Eileen W. Fisher


Photo of two theatre tickets.
Rejection of one’s friendship hurts at any age, but it was especially painful to me as a lonely fifth-grader trying to extend a school friendship beyond the confines of the schoolyard. I want to share this story in the belief that others have experienced similar situations as myself when I was struggling to understand how others perceived me. I have come to perceive of myself as a worthy person.

She didn’t show up. I had gone down to the movie theater at noon, an hour early, just so that I could watch for her. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance; she might show up early and not wait. After all, I was the one who had initiated the date. I was as tense as a coil ready to spring open.
She was a girl from my fifth grade, and we just recently began to play together after lunch. Quiet and shy, her petite build made her appear younger than her age. The girl could have been my kid sister. Her light brown hair curled neatly under in a simple pageboy. She wore plain clothes; solid-colored skirts that ended below the knee, loose fitting cotton blouses, and white knee-high socks, just like me. My mother bought all my clothes on sale. I liked her soft-spoken ways, and — the way she smiled at me. Now after lunch, I had a reason to rush back to school. My new friend was waiting.

I felt so comfortable with her that I surprised myself by suddenly asking, “Do you want to meet me at the movies on Saturday?" It's not that I exactly needed her to go to the movies; I went by myself every Saturday to the double feature. What I needed was a friend to make the experience come alive; someone to joke with afterwards.

I wanted so badly to have a date, just like the other kids. But as soon as I asked her, I sensed that it might have been a mistake. Her body stiffened almost indiscernibly; I had put her on the spot. We looked at each other awkwardly, but after a short pause, she agreed. I pretended not to have noticed.

On my block, it was different. There were plenty of kids. It was easy to join in since the ground rule was that whoever was downstairs at the time, got to play. Groups were fluid, and no one even blinked an eye that the kid who could jump rope best was an Italian boy, Ralph. However, it wasn't quite that straightforward at school. You couldn’t just join in. You had to wait to be asked.

Though my academic ability might have won me the admiration of my classmates, it did not necessarily help me gain their friendship. I could devour library books, but could not read social cues quite as easily. Once, and only once, I brought home a report card with an ''N'' rating. My third-grade teacher had written on the back, ''Eileen needs improvement in the area of 'plays well, and gets along with others’.”

I was as shocked as my mother was when I got home. She took off her heavy brown-rimmed glasses, placed them on the Formica kitchen table, and looked up at me. I looked down.
"Eileen, what does this mean?" I raised my eyes to meet hers, but said nothing.

''I'm going to school tomorrow,” she said, and with that the conversation over. There was no point arguing with her to just let it go. I didn’t want to talk about it, and I certainly did not want my mother to discuss this with my teacher.

When I came home the next day, my mother sighed with exasperation and said, ''Eileen, the teacher says you bother the children when they’re trying to work. You go over to them, and mind their business. You interrupt them when they’re trying to talk. The teacher can’t always call on you. There are other children in the class. You have to give them a chance to answer, too."

Without a word, I went to my bedroom, at a loss to make sense of the teacher’s comments.
Who did I bother? Was it when I went over to that girl's desk offering to help? Did she complain that I was too bossy? Was it when I went over to the kids in the back of the room during a break? But I was just trying to be friendly! Did I really raise my hand too much? But I knew the answers!

From that time on, I became quieter, more compliant at school, but also sadder and lonelier. I threw myself into my schoolwork. Yet yesterday, I had felt confident enough to make a date! We had even exchanged phone numbers.

On Saturday afternoon, I stood near the box office, peering down the avenue from one end to the other, hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she approached. Although I didn't know in which direction she would be coming, there was no doubt in my mind that she would be —until one o'clock drew near. Then I became frantic. I walked a few feet away from the theater in each direction, hoping to see her rushing forward with some explanation of why she was late. With her face flushed, she would politely say, ''I'm sorry I'm late. Something came up." And I would reply casually, "That's okay. Let's just go in.”

As one o'clock became one fifteen, then one thirty, a knot formed in my stomach. Did I make myself clear that it was for this Saturday? Should I have called her in the morning to remind her? But, that would have given her a chance to back out. Had I denied the reality of the situation, given her initial hesitancy?

I waited an hour after the last child had gone in, long after there was any reasonable chance that she was coming. I fought back tears to hold back the truth she wasn't coming. Whether she had changed her mind, or never really had intended to come, I would never know. It wasn’t important. What was important was that I had opened myself up to this girl. I was left standing with an open hand extended, and no one to take it in theirs. It hurt. What a fool I was to have misread her friendliness for friendship!

As I walked in the door, my mother jumped up from her seat in the kitchen, and followed me into the foyer. The house was so quiet, the silence calming. My father wasn't home from work yet.
"What happened? Why are you home so early?" The concern in her voice was so comforting that I could no longer hold back my tears.

She didn't come. Why, ... why didn't she show up?", I wailed.

My mother stood over me, not knowing what to say. ''Maybe she forgot. Maybe she just got the days mixed up. Look, Eileen, maybe something just came up."

Challenging my mother, I shouted, ''Then why didn't she call?"

Pleading with me to stop crying, she reached for the phone. "I'll ask her if she wants to come over."

I controlled myself so that I could listen to the conversation. At least my Mom was trying to salvage part of the day. Maybe there was a reasonable explanation after all. Maybe, and with that ''maybe,'' came hope.

"Eileen was waiting for you at the movies", I heard my mother say. "Would you like to come over now?"

After a minute or two, she hung up, turned to me and quietly said, "Eileen, she said she was there, but when she didn't see you, she went home.”

"She…never…came", I screamed. The look in my mother’s eyes told me that she knew it was true. I saw the anguish on my mother's face. With that, I began to sob inconsolably.

My mother could never bear to see me cry. She told me more than once how it reminded her so much of her childhood in Russia when, left as an orphan, she cried herself to sleep longing for her mother. "I cried so much that I have no more tears left."

As painful as it must have been for her, my mother raised her right hand, and slapped me across the face. Stunned, I stopped crying. Disoriented, I sat still until the world came back into focus. ''I'm sorry, Eileen,” she murmured. But, I wasn’t angry, just exhausted. I stood up, turned to the right, and walked down the long hallway to my room. My mother turned to the left, and went back to the kitchen.

That was the only time my mother ever slapped me across the face, and the last time she ever hit me. It was also the last time in that school that I ever tried to arrange a date with anyone. And, it was the last time I ever spoke to that girl.

No, I don't remember the girl's name. Why would I have wanted to?

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