Tenth grade was, without question, the worst year of my life. And of all the trials that were bestowed upon me that year, high school gym class was among the worst. I think few of Dante’s nine circles of hell could compare to the awkward chaos that ensues after a room full of coed adolescents have been told to “find a partner.” It’s especially bad if you’re a painfully shy introvert who has just been transplanted from the other side of the planet.
The first time it happened, I was lucky that I didn’t have a panic-induced heart attack and die on the spot. Thankfully, a girl named Alla took pity on me and asked me to be her partner. Maybe it was because she was an angel sent from Heaven, or maybe it was because she recognized that neither of us quite fit in with either the argyle sweater camp or the hippie camp. Whatever her reasoning, she became my only friend and was my gym class partner every single day.
That is to say, every single day of the first semester. During the second semester, the class was divided into two groups: one would take gym while the other took health, and they would switch half way through the semester. I don’t know exactly how the classes were divided up, but I imagine the gym-teacher-gods were huddled together in their gym-teacher-god office and said to themselves, “That gym-student-mortal Esther only has one friend. Lets give her an opportunity to branch out.” And thus, the edict was sent down form the gym-teacher-gods. The class list declared that Alla and I were to be in different classes, and our gym-class-partnership was torn asunder.
Dear teachers, if you ever feel inclined to help a student in this way, don’t. I’m sure it was well intended, but I was drowning, and they ripped the life-preserver right out of my hands. My only salvation was that I had health class first, so the partner-finding was kept to a minimum.
Our first group project had assigned partners and I was assigned to work with Alla’s cousin Taras. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be “quiet.” He was probably the only kid in the entire class who was quieter than me. We silently moved to sit beside each other as directed, all the while making use of our stellar skills at avoiding eye contact. Once everyone had been paired up, the teacher launched into an animated monologue about how sitting in pairs did not give us license to talk to each other during class and interruptions would not be tolerated.
Taras glanced over at me and said in a low voice, “Do you think we’re going to have a problem with that?”
I smiled. In fact, that might have been my first real smile of the year.