Here’s a little Valentine for you—a chapter of my memoir dealing with a childhood crush at boarding school in Africa.
THIS BUD OF LOVE
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, shall prove a beauteous blossom ere next we meet. William Shakespeare
Romance at Sakeji was a virtually forbidden subject. The staff believed, quite rightly, that we were all much too young to be entertaining romantic notions about the opposite sex. However, that did not stop us from doing it! I always had a crush on someone, though never again another one so all-consuming as “Morn.”
You communicated your interest in another person in various established ways. The first indication, normally, was to begin calling him or her by first name only. In this narrative I have generally used only first names, in order to protect the identities of my classmates, but in reality we always called members of the opposite gender by both first and last names. I was always referred to as “Linda Moran,” and if the last name was left off, even by accident, everyone assumed that the unfortunate boy had romantic feelings for me.
If you were not rebuffed after calling someone by their first name, you might move on to more overt displays. By “overt” I mean saying “good night” to the object of your affection. When the “All In” call wafted over the playground, if you sought out that special someone and said “Good night,” calling them only by their first name, then you were as good as engaged in the eyes of any onlookers. Another big sign of favor was to give your beloved some or all of your sweets, or if you were really serious, your fudge on Sunday. Any gift of food was a sign of true love.
I was the recipient of a boy’s affections on two occasions at Sakeji. The first came when I was only in grade six—and ten years old. There was a boy in my class who was quiet, studious, and unfailingly polite. He seemed nice enough, but I rarely had any occasion to speak to him. In fact I hardly noticed him till the day I went into the classroom during Afternoon Tea to finish up an assignment. As it happened, he was the only other student in the room.
When I finished my work, I rose to leave, only to find him blocking the way, nervously shifting from one foot to the other and polishing his glasses with his handkerchief. I looked at him in surprise.
“I have something to tell you, Linda,” he said.
This was even more surprising. He had never had anything to say to me before.
“I like you!” he blurted out (the word “love” was rarely spoken at Sakeji), and went on to declare his feelings for me with endearing formality, ending up with something along the lines of “and I wondered if you could possibly have feelings for me too.”
I looked in astonishment at his earnest freckled face. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined being the object of his affections. I barely knew him! Yet he seemed such a truly nice boy, and it had obviously taken a lot of courage for him to confront me. So I stammered out something about how I valued his friendship but really hadn’t thought in terms of anything more than that. I felt stricken when I saw a couple of tears slip out from beneath the spectacles, but he kept his stiff upper lip and graciously allowed me to leave, after asking me to please let him know if I ever reconsidered. I walked up to rejoin my friends, so stunned I could hardly believe it had really happened!
Years later, when I was thirteen and in Form II, I was to have a different sort of romantic encounter, again with a British boy, only this one got off to a bumpy start. I noticed that I was being stalked by a Grade Two boy named Bruce, who was only seven years old. He and his sister were new at Sakeji. Bruce was adorable and had big thick glasses, but I had never had anything to do with him, other than teaching him to swim, so I couldn’t understand why he followed me around, then ran up behind me when I wasn’t looking and hit me on the back!
This continued for some time. I never knew where Bruce was lurking, or when he might be following me, but I was repeatedly attacked from behind while I was walking with my friends or otherwise going about my business. I decided the best way to deal with it was just to ignore my pint-sized attacker. Robert, one of my classmates, told me to put a stop to it, as it was unbecoming to the dignity of a Big Girl. I knew from past experience that if I did not take action, Robert would step in and handle it for me. He believed that it was of utmost importance for the “seniors” to maintain their dignity.
One day as Carol and I were walking from the quad to the Hall, we noticed Bruce lying in wait behind a large shrub.
“Here’s your chance,” whispered Carol. “Get ready, and when he attacks, we’ll both turn around and grab him!”
I reluctantly agreed. Sure enough, we heard the patter of feet behind us and we tensed for the moment of impact. We timed it perfectly, and in an instant we each had one side of a howling seven-year-old in our grasp.
“Why are you doing this?” I demanded. “What have I ever done to you?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. This wasn’t much help. He stared at the ground.
“What do you want then?” I asked in exasperation.
“I want to be your friend,” he said shyly, lifting his huge blue eyes to look into mine.
“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” I said, while trying hard not to giggle. “If you want to be my friend all you have to do is ask! I’d be happy to be your friend, Bruce, but you’ll have to stop attacking me once and for all.”
Behind his thick spectacles his eyes lit up.
“I promise I’ll never do it again! Good-bye, Linda!”
And off he ran to play with his friends.
Finally Carol and I could indulge our need to laugh. She thought I had been too easy on him. I was proud of myself for solving the problem without resorting to Robert’s strong arm tactics. But I was also a little uneasy about Bruce calling me “Linda.” It was unexpected coming from someone so much younger. I chalked it up to the fact that he was relatively new and didn’t know Sakeji customs yet.
I was quite wrong, as I discovered that very evening. Just before All In, as I walked across the playground, Bruce stepped carefully up to me with his hands behind his back.
“Here, Linda,” he said shyly.
From behind his back he pulled out a beautiful handmade card. It had a heart on the front and said “I love you” on the inside.
I gave him a serious look. “Thank you very much, Bruce,” I said. “I’m glad we’re friends now.”
He beamed at me and then brought something out from behind his back with his other hand. It was a little pile of perfectly ripe mulberries, artistically arranged on a large, flawless mulberry leaf. That clinched it. Bruce definitely had a crush on me. I knew he must have had to climb pretty high to get those mulberries, because all the ones within easy reach had long ago been picked.
I thanked him profusely for his gift and went on up to the dorm, pondering the best way to handle this situation. It was surely a passing fancy, so there was no reason to reject him or embarrass him in any way. As the days passed, he showered me with notes, cards and further gifts of food. He always came running up to say good-night at All In. My friends were very entertained by the situation and couldn’t believe I was encouraging it.
Bruce was such a sweet boy I couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings. But I found my diplomacy skills really tested when he came right out and proposed marriage. My mind raced as I tried to think of a tactful reply. I finally hit on a great solution.
“Bruce,” I told him, “I really care a lot for you too, but we’re both pretty young to be talking about marriage. I’ll make a deal with you. If we’re both still not married when you are twenty-five, I would be honored to be your wife.”
He was thrilled with this answer and often reminded me that I had promised to marry him if we were both unattached when he was twenty-five. He was completely confident that I would one day be his! For me, it was a relatively safe promise—I would be thirty-one when he was twenty-five, and I was convinced that one of us would be married by then!
Our friendship continued till I left Sakeji. I truly enjoyed his company and loved to see him smile. Over two years after I left Sakeji, I was at a boarding school in Kenya when I received a valentine from my old friend Bruce. He had not known how to reach me, so he had sent it to his dad, who sent it to my dad, who forwarded it on to me. I received it in late March and it brought a smile to my face and many warm feelings too. That was the last I heard from him till we were both adults with families of our own. I married at twenty-two so was never called to deliver on my long-ago promise to a seven-year-old boy!