Copyright© 2021 by Mark Elias
I remember the first time I saw her. We were barely six years old, when this little elfin girl walked into Mrs. Sanders first grade classroom. Her family had just moved into our small southern Georgia town. She was the same age as me, but even then, she was smaller than the rest of us. She had this wild hair that reminded me of a lion’s mane. Her blonde hair was thick and curly and ran all the way down her back. She had these pretty bright green eyes, and this shy little smile. Even then, she commanded the attention of the room.
“Class, I want you to meet a new friend,” Mrs. Sanders began as she paraded the new girl up to the front of the room. “This is Allison Moon. She and her family just moved here from Kentucky. Y’all be nice to her and make her feel welcome.”
I swear I heard Mrs. Sanders talking, but it was almost like her words weren’t registering with me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl. What struck me the most were her eyes. Allison had the brightest green eyes that I had ever seen. Granted, at six years old, I didn’t have a lot of experience with paying attention to a girl’s eyes. I really had nothing to compare them to, but I remember just staring at her. She had these eyes that you could just get lost in. As I said, Allison commanded the attention of any room she was in, whether she was speaking or not.
It wasn’t ‘love at first sight’ like many of the stories you’ve read; but truthfully, I was very infatuated with her from the start.
However, there was a problem. There is always a problem, right? This should be the part of the story where Mrs. Sanders assigned her a seat right next to mine and Allison and I immediately struck up a friendship. That didn’t happen. Perhaps this is the part of the story where I tell you how I went up to Allison at recess and started playing tag with her and immediately the two of us became best friends. That didn’t happen, either.
The truth of the matter is, I am painfully shy. I have been that way all my life. My parents used to tell me stories that when I was a baby, I had only a select few people I would let hold me or comfort me. If you weren’t one of the select few people that I was comfortable with, then I’d cry and struggle until you put me down. They thought that it was just a phase that I would grow out of; but apparently, I didn’t.
As I started daycare, it took me weeks to get comfortable enough with my teachers that I wouldn’t immediately begin crying when my mom or dad dropped me off. It would be another few months before I got comfortable enough with the other children to begin playing; but even then, I was reserved and had to be practically pulled into whatever game the other children had going.
During nap time, the teachers would give us all little pallets to sleep on while they caught up on whatever they had to do. As I have been told several times over the years, the first few times we went to sleep I gave the teachers a real scare. It seems that when they weren’t looking, I took my blanket, and went off on my own so that I wouldn’t have to be around the other children. When nap time was over the teachers ran around trying to find me. It took them nearly an hour before they realized that I had taken my blankets and gone to sleep in the far corner of the room beneath some crafting tables.
For the first few days this happened every day with me managing to find a new spot to sleep in so that I wouldn’t have to be near the other kids. I even found my way into a supply closet down the hallway. That day my parents were called up to the daycare because no one could find me. After that, it seems the teachers caught on to me and were more aware of what I was doing. I had also been talked to by my parents. I don’t remember any of those events and can only tell you now because of all the times I have been the brunt of family jokes. It doesn’t bother me when my family laughs at the stories. In truth, they are funny; but I am extremely sensitive about my family telling other people about them.
So, you see, when Allison walked into the classroom that day, I had everything working against me. My seat was always at the front of the class so that the teacher could keep an eye on me and force me to get involved in the classroom activities. That, along with being painfully shy, meant I was doomed from the start. At lunch that day I sat in my typical seat, all the way at the end of the long row of tables as far away from everyone as I could. At recess Allison went off to play with several of the girls in our class who immediately seemed to adopt her as if they had known her for years. Allison just had this way with people. It was like magic. She never met a stranger and could draw you out of whatever shell you were in.
It wasn’t until March, nearly 6 months after Allison first came to town, that I had my first real interaction with her. Despite staring at her whenever I could, I never had the nerve to talk to her. All the other children adored her, so her attention was always with other people. The few times she did take notice of me she always gave me a smile before I quickly turned away. I was never sad or lonely, at least not at the time. No, I was just content. I was comfortable in my own little bubble and didn’t need anyone else to come in. It was Allison who forced her way into my personal bubble when she ran up to me at recess.
“Hey, Alex!” she began, with a slight giggle in her voice.
“Why are you always by yourself? Don’t you want to come play with us?”
“I...” Part of me wanted to join in whatever game she was playing. Part of me, even at seven years old, wanted to cling to her and let her pull me through life, but that just wasn’t my nature.
“I’m fine.” That was it. She would accept my answer and go back to playing with the other kids. That way the fear that gripped my chest could relax; but then, THAT wasn’t Allison’s nature.
“Come on! Please?” It was her eyes that made me want to do whatever she asked, and if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Sanders calling an end to recess, I might have done it. “Aww, man!” she added.
I quickly stood up, and hastily made my way to the single file line hoping I could avoid another interaction, but I was doomed from the start. Once Allison set her mind to something, she was determined to see it through, and she had set her mind to getting me to talk to her.
“Alex! Wait up!” She hurried after me, managing to stand in line right behind me jumping from foot to foot. “Will you come to my birthday party next weekend?” As she was asking me this, she handed me a Disney princess invitation. Once again, I was saved by Mrs. Sanders, who led us silently down the hall to our Art class.
I hadn’t planned on showing my parents the invitation at all. I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Allison, I did. Part of me wanted very much to get to know her and become her friend. That was what scared me the most.
I didn’t really have any friends. There were a few kids that I was more familiar with than others. Some of them I would even hang around with at recess when one of my normal spots had been taken by others, but I never had any sleepovers. I never had anyone over to my house to play during the summer, and I don’t even remember going to any other birthday parties before. My parents were usually really good about not forcing me to do something. They worried about me and wanted desperately for me to come out of my shell, but they also knew they couldn’t force me to do it. I had to do it naturally. One person who did NOT know that ... was Allison Moon.
At the end of the day, we were all standing outside in line waiting for our parents to pick us up from school. We were made to stand in line along the wall. One by one, as parents drove up, one of the teachers would call our name and take us to our parent’s car. As I said before, we lived in a really small town, so this precaution was probably unnecessary since everyone knew everyone. But that day, when the principal called my name to take me to my mom’s car, Allison bounded off of her place along the wall and made a beeline for my mom. She was bouncing from foot to foot as she leaned into the window of my mom’s car.
“Can Alex come to my birthday party next weekend?!”
I could hear my mom laughing at the bundle of smiles and laughter that was already working her magic.
“I’m not sure. He’s never been to a birthday party, before.”
“Then he HAS to come! PLEASE?! Everyone will be there! I gave him an invitation! I’m having it at the park. It’s going to be so much fun!”
“Maybe,” my mom laughed. It was really the only word she could get in because Allison didn’t seem like she was going to stop talking.
“Allison,” Principal Lunsford said as he placed a guiding hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you go get back in line and let Alex get home?”
“Okay.” She turned to me with her smiling green eyes. “Bye, Alex!”
The rest of the day seemed to drag on. My mom never asked me anything about who Allison was, or if I wanted to go. It wasn’t until dinner time that night that everything came out. Growing up in the deep south there was a tradition. You ate dinner, together. At least, in our small town you did. No matter what the make-up of your family was, everyone had some semblance of a family dinner. So, as I sat quietly pushing around the spaghetti on my plate, silently praying that my mom wouldn’t mention anything, my prayers went unanswered.
“So, Alex, tell me about this new friend of yours,” my mom began, giving my dad the first inclination that something had happened that day.
“Alex has a new friend?” It wasn’t right to say I had a NEW friend. If I had considered Allison my friend at that time, she would have been my ONLY friend.
“That’s what I was hoping Alex would answer. When I went to pick him up today this girl came running up to the car before Alex could get there. She was practically sitting in the front seat asking me if I would let Alex go to her birthday party next weekend.” My mom had been talking to my dad, but finally turned to me.
“What’s her name, Alex?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alexander Jackson. Don’t sit there and tell me you don’t know the name of someone in your class. She certainly seemed to know who you were. Now, what is her name?”
My mom wasn’t scolding me, nor was she mad at me. Her tone wasn’t harsh when she spoke to me, but there was a finality to it that let me know she expected an answer and it had better be the truth.
“Her name is Allison.”
“Why haven’t you told us you had a friend?”
This time it was my dad, who was always the gentler of my parents. His voice was deep and carried across the table. I swear my dad could have made a fortune as a voice actor. His voice was like something you’d hear at the beginning of a fairytale movie that started out with, ‘Once upon a time in a faraway land.’
“She’s not really my friend.”
“It didn’t seem that way to me when I picked you up.”
“Her family moved here before Thanksgiving. I haven’t really talked to her a lot. She’s always playing with the other kids.”
That made it seem like Allison ignored me, but at this point in my life, my parents knew full well that it was far more likely that I was avoiding Allison than that Allison didn’t want to be my friend.
“Well, I think you should go to her party. We can go into the city this weekend and get her something.”
“Alex!” There was that tone that all mothers get when you knew there was nothing more to be said, so I stopped resisting. “I know you don’t like to be around other kids, but you are going to have to learn to get over that. Your dad and I have never made you do anything you didn’t want to do. We’ve never forced you to make friends, have we?” I could only shake my head no. “I won’t force you to be this girl’s friend, but it would be very rude to ignore her. She really seemed to want you to come to her party. You don’t have to be her best friend, but you WILL go to that party. Do you understand?”
Two weeks later I found myself at Reed Bingham State Park, trying desperately to avoid people but being forced into public by my mom. In my hands I clutched the gift we had picked out for Allison. Allison’s mom met us and smiled. Allison’s mom was the exact opposite of her daughter in terms of looks. Allison was beautiful in a simplistic way. She wasn’t exotic, nor was she homely, but she was undoubtedly a beautiful girl. Allison was also very petite and was the shortest person in our entire class, something that would never change as she grew older.
Debbie Moon was the exact opposite. Debbie was a tall woman who towered over all the other mothers. Her height was a good thing because she was also a hefty woman. At one time she may have been a moderately attractive person, but time had not been kind to her. Allison may not have gotten her looks from her mother, but she did get her personality. Debbie Moon was just as warm and welcoming as her daughter was. Her smile immediately made me relax a bit around her.
“Hey, there!” Debbie’s thick southern drawl was something else she seemed to have passed down to her daughter. “I’m Debbie, Allie’s mom.”
“I’m Teresa, and this is my son, Alex.”
“Well, I’m glad you guys could make it! You can put your present on the table over there and then go down to the water with the other kids.”
“I don’t have to swim, do I?” I asked my mom, but it was Debbie who answered.
“All the other kids are, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, buddy. Allie’s just happy you came. She was so excited you agreed to come.”
I didn’t know it then, but that would be a real turning point in my life. You see, up until that point I never minded that I didn’t have friends. I didn’t care that I never went over to someone’s house to play. It never bothered me that I didn’t get up on Saturday mornings and go out riding bikes with all the other kids in my neighborhood. I kept to myself and that was always enough. It also helped that none of the other kids really gave me a hard time about it. They accepted that I was a loner and gave me my space. Allison had been the first person to ever really try to bring me out of my shell.
All the kids had gathered by the lake at one of the sandy beach areas. I had known there would be swimming, but I didn’t know how to swim. So instead of wearing my swimming shorts I was in just a normal pair of shorts and shoes. Allison spotted me right away and came bounding out of the water.
“Alex! You’re here! Come on and swim with us!”
I shook my head. “I don’t really feel like swimming, but thanks anyway.”
“Come on, please?” With just one word, please, she seemed to be able to bend me to her will. I started to get up but remembered I couldn’t swim. I wasn’t going to tell her that though.
“I didn’t bring my swim trunks. I’ll be okay.”
Allison just sat down beside me in the sand. I can’t help but imagine how odd it must have looked. Allison, sitting in her swimsuit and me looking like a curly headed Forrest Gump sitting beside her. I wish I could remember any portion of the conversation we had then. I’m sure it wasn’t anything deep or meaningful. We were, after all, only seven at the time. The conversation wasn’t memorable or life altering in any way. What WAS life altering was what happened later that day. We were called back to the picnic area where we had hot dogs and hamburgers followed by the traditional cake and ice cream. I stayed back as Allison tore into the gifts we had brought her.
Unlike most kids, Allison didn’t attack it with reckless abandon. She would take the time to see who gave her the present, and if there was a card, at least try reading it. But once she had done that, she tore into the present with the enthusiasm you’d expect of a seven-year-old. She got a wide array of gifts from movies to clothes, but the one gift that she seemed to treasure the most was what I had brought her. Her eyes lit up when she tore through the pink wrapping paper and saw the nearly 3-foot-tall Cinderella doll. The doll came with several dresses she wore in the movie, but the crowning jewel was the iconic blue dress she wore while dancing with the prince. I had been quiet while she was thanking everyone for the gifts and tried my best to stay clear, but Allison wrapped me in a tight hug and thanked me more than she had the others.
We were all herded back to the beach area and told to play a bit more while the parents cleaned up and talked. I had a feeling something bad was about to happen. I couldn’t say why, but I knew I didn’t want to go. My mom was having nothing of it though and told me, as sternly as she could in public that I was to go back and play with the others, or at the least, sit by the water. Once again, I found Allison sitting beside me on the sand trying to have a conversation with me.
“Allie! Come on! We’re playing water tag!” It was Jennifer Hansen, another first grader, though in a different class than Allison and me.
“But Alex isn’t swimming.”
“So? He’s weird anyway!”
“Hey! That’s not nice!”
“He probably wants to play with that doll he got you!” This time it was Jake Pollard joining in. Jake was a year older than us and in second grade but just down the road from Allison.
“Don’t say that!”
“He only came cause his mommy made him! I’m surprised you asked him to come.”
“I bet he can’t even swim. That’s why he won’t come in the water. Only babies can’t swim!”
“Leave him alone!” Allison was doing her best to defend me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
There were some other things said, but I didn’t hear them. I had tuned them out. At that moment I retreated into my own little world, placing my hands on my ears to drown out the jeers of the other kids. I was trying not to cry, but I felt the tears coming long before they started flowing down my cheeks. I knew Allison was trying to defend me, but the other kids were relentless. In truth, it was probably a long time coming. I had never really been teased despite all my weird intricacies.
“Look at him! Crying like a little baby!” Jake laughed.
They were really tearing into me and I couldn’t take it anymore. With massive tears running down my face I stood up and ran.
“Alex!” I heard Allison calling for me, but I didn’t slow down.
I didn’t know where I was running to; I simply ran as fast I could to get away from the torment of the other kids. I wasn’t sure if any of the parents saw me or not. I wasn’t even thinking about my mother. I just needed to escape. I ran from the beach towards an area that was marked off for hiking deep into the surrounding woods.
“Slow down, Kid!” An older gentleman yelled at me angrily as I blew past him on the trail.
Even though I couldn’t hear the kids anymore, they were still yelling at me in my mind and that made me run even more. I stopped trying to stay on the trail and by the time I stopped running because my lungs were burning, I was completely lost.
I had only been to the state park once and had never gone onto the hiking trail. Had I stayed on it, I would have been fine, but once I got off the trail and just started running into the woods, I knew I was in trouble. I turned around trying to see if I could find a trail, but there was nothing. Being just seven at the time, panic started to set in quickly and my mind began to shut down. Tears, which had started to dry up, began to spring up once again and the only thing I could do was to sit down beneath a tall oak tree and cry.
My mind started playing up all the fears in my heart. I turned my head quickly as I heard a bear coming at me. Was that a mountain lion I heard in the distance? I felt the rattles of a snake coiled up and ready to strike me. The howl of an imaginary wolf made me once again bring my hands up to my ears to block out all the sounds. At the time I couldn’t have told you how long I sat beneath the tree, but it was long enough that despite still crying, I had no more tears to shed. I almost didn’t hear the game warden as he came towards me.
“I FOUND HIM! I GOT HIM!” He shouted before looking towards me and lowering his voice to try and calm me. “It’s okay, Son. You’ve got a lot of people worried about you. Everyone is looking for you. Why don’t you come with me and we will take you back to your mom?”
I couldn’t help but run to him as he bent down to pick me up to carry me back. When the trail finally came into view, I was shocked to realize how far I had gone off the trail. I could see a lot of people standing around having heard that I had been found. I had stopped crying until I looked into my mom’s eyes. They were blood red from crying as she stood on the trail with Debbie and Allison Moon by her side comforting her. When the game warden handed me to my mom I was sobbing inconsolably on my mom’s shoulder.
The only thing I could get out was “I’m sorry, Momma.” I said it repeatedly despite my mother’s assurance that everything was okay.
“Thank you, Debbie.” My mom said as she wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry we’ve made such a mess of Allie’s birthday. I should get him home.”
“I understand. And don’t think anything about the birthday. It wasn’t his fault. Damn kids can be little demons sometimes.”
I couldn’t even look at Allison as we said goodbye. I had ruined her birthday. There was no way she would want to be my friend now. She probably hated me and would never forgive me. That day should have been a day for me to really come out of my shell. I should have started to open myself up to others beginning with a new friendship with Allison. Instead, I felt the shell harden around me. I had always known there was a reason I didn’t like to be around others, and that day had shown me exactly why. Come Monday morning I would have to go back to school. I’d have to see all of them again, including Allison. I would have to see her hate me. I would have to hear all the others making fun of me. This was the reason I didn’t have friends... I couldn’t trust them.
Dinner that night was quiet. I don’t ever remember our family dinners being that quiet. Both my parents wanted to say something, but neither of them knew what exactly that something was. I knew they had questions, but I wasn’t sure I had any answers to those questions. Even at seven years old I knew I shouldn’t have just run off like I had. No one said anything for a long time. It was my dad who finally broke the silence.
“Alex, your mom and I want you to know that we aren’t mad at you for what happened today, but we do need to talk about it. You really scared everyone.”
“I’m sorry.” I wasn’t crying now. I had managed to calm down, especially since I was back in the comfort zone of home.
“Son, I want you to know something. People will always find a way to make fun of you. No matter how old you get, there will always be someone who doesn’t like you. There will always be someone who will try to put you down. You don’t have to run. You are strong enough to stand up for yourself. You don’t have to worry about what other people say about you.”
I wished I could believe him.
Monday morning at school things went about as well as could be expected. Most of the first grade had heard about my episode and I was ridiculed to no end. Jennifer seemed to be making it known that I liked to play with dolls. All these years later it still amazes me how vicious children can be, even in first grade. Jake was doing his best to make life hard for me. The only respite I had came at lunch. I took my typical spot at the far end of the long table, trying to put as much distance as possible between me and the other kids. I had just settled down to see what my mom had made me for lunch when Allison came to sit across from me.
I just knew she was going to hate me. She was going to try and yell at me for the horrible mess I made of her birthday. I put my head down, not wanting to even look into her eyes. But there were no harsh words coming from her. In fact, she didn’t even speak to me. She simply took out the sandwich from her bag and began to eat, all the while humming some song I’m sure she had heard on the radio. When Mrs. Sanders called an end to the lunch period Allison stood up and smiled at me.
“Thanks for letting me eat lunch with you, Alex,” she said, and then turned and left. It was as if, to her, nothing had ever happened. It was just another day and for some reason she had decided that she wanted to hang out with me. I swear I’ll never understand her.