Sherman’s Supposition Trap
Sherman knew she had discovered his secret crush when he saw, "Bye, Bye, Love," scribbled in spastic handwriting across her tan notebook. He caught a glimpse of it as she put the notebook in her book bag, but he just sat there in the desk behind her, pretending to be busy with his math.
Sherman looked up at Ann as she stood to leave the room. Her blue eyes met his for a split second, and her pout, made all the more obvious by the tight cheek muscles in her round face, sent a chill up his spine.
"What does that mean?" he asked, pointing to the scribbling on the tablet. She shrugged, looked at him squarely in the face and slowly headed for the door, dragging her left foot slightly in a repeated shuffle that was wearing down the sole of her brown leather shoe's front toe.
Ann knew. Sherman could tell by her clenched jaw and pursed lips. But, why did she have to be so dramatic -- and so creative -- about it. "Bye, Bye Love." He had never seen it put that way before, but that about summed up his feelings.
You now have 60 short stories about age-related limitations in your “Opening Up” archive.
So I’m taking some time off from writing – between August 23 and November 30, 2023 – to rejuvenate, implement a marketing plan for “Opening Up” and enjoy some day trips around Minnesota before Pam and I say a Thanksgiving goodbye to our not-much-driven Honda hybrid.
During my hiatus, you’ll receive a retread of a previous most-read “Opening Up” short story every Wednesday noon. I’ll be back live on December 6 with fresh content.
- Jim Hasse
Two kids in the eighth grade, both with cerebral palsy. Both intelligent. Both determined to make it in life. It seemed everyone assumed they would someday make a "good couple." And, ever since sixth grade, Sherman could tell Ann was beginning to make that assumption, too.
But, it was not going to happen. Ann was bossy, judgmental, cunning, possessive -- exactly what a 13-year-old guy didn't need. To be dominated by a short, pudgy woman at his age was a curse. She was rough and quick to ridicule with a frown between her distant eyes that dominated her round, Polish face.
Thelma, on the other hand, was smooth. She was tall, thin, graceful, and charming. She had been a student at a "regular" school, and she would be with the group for only half a year for physical therapy because she had a slight limp from polio. Sherman was infatuated.
It didn't matter to her that she was temporarily attending an orthopedic school. It didn't matter to Sherman that she was black. But, the Weekly Reader contained heavy snippets once in a while about “Rosa Parks,” “Dr. Martin Luther King,” and “Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
Maybe that's why Sherman’s teacher, Miss Singleton, a tall lady with graying hair, appeared worried about how he would react to Thelma's blackness. Maybe that's why Miss Singleton talked to all 20 of his fellow classmates -- all four grades --- about differences before Thelma showed up one morning and took the back desk in the row of four eighth graders.
Sherman didn't know why Miss Singleton was talking about differences until Thelma became one of Sherman’s classmates. It was her secret that Thelma was black, and apparently she did not know how to tell the group, except in her stern “sermon” about differences.
At first, Sherman thought Gene or Kelly, two of the bigger sixth grade kids who had epilepsy, had again been caught shooting baskets outside in the playground that was reserved for the "regular" students of Washington Grade School.
But, that was not the problem. The problem was placing a black student into an all-white, upper-grade classroom in Madison, WI, against a backdrop of turmoil in the South.
When Thelma joined her classmates that first day, there was no problem. After all, her new classroom was home to a group of kids with assorted learning disabilities, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, polio, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, seizures, and assorted bone and skin diseases. Who else could be more different than the kids at Washington Orthopedic?
Thelma looked Sherman straight in the eye the first time he met her. She didn't stare at his strangely bent arms and legs. She didn't cringe at his sloppy speech.
Thelma was not like the white kids from the regular section of Washington Grade School. Whenever they would accidentally run into Sherman or one of his classmates in the parking lot or the playground, they would often silently stare and maybe giggle or laugh and whisper to their friends.
Back in fourth grade, Orlando, a gangly, grinning black kid with a mild case of polio, was Sherman’s buddy. No one prepared Sherman for Orlando. No one prepared Orlando for Sherman. They just became buddies. But, that was in 1952, when Ike, not Martin Luther King or George Wallace, was making the headlines. Orlando was just Orlando.
But, yes, Thelma was different. She had a quick smile and a little giggle that, combined with her way of cocking her head at just the right angle at just the right times, made Sherman melt into fantasies about what her touch and caress would feel like. But, his delightful fantasies often ended in a triple-whammy guilt trip. She was a girl. She was almost "normal." And, she was black.
One day before English class, Thelma showed Sherman billfold photos of her brothers and sisters, and they were also black, a fact that at first startled Sherman because he was beginning to pretend that Thelma was not all that black.
Thelma and Ann quickly became close, sharing those little secrets only adolescent girls feel important enough to whisper and giggle about in front of the boys.
In some ways, Sherman was jealous of the friendship Thelma had with Ann -- the same jealousy he now felt from Ann every time Thelma would turn her attention to him. Ann knew Sherman was infatuated with Thelma. No one had to tell her. She knew.
"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." - Mark Twain
"Bye, Bye, Love." Strange way to put it, but it was true. Sherman chuckled to himself, feeling delightfully free of the expectation that “Ann and Sherman” were somehow "made" for each other and destined to be a couple. Sherman was ready to face her disdain. He was no longer her man.
But, then, Russ, the boozy taxi driver who drove Sherman and three other sixth graders to and from school, started singing one afternoon on the way home, as he often did, to the delight of his "special" passengers.
"Bye, bye, love. Bye, bye happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to die...," Russ, who claimed to be a singer in one of the local bars, started crooning.
"Where'd you get that?" Sherman asked incredulously.
"A new one out," Russ, in his DJ voice, announced smoothly to his captive audience, "by the Everly Brothers -- 'Bye, Bye, Love.'"
Sherman sank further into the taxi's back seat -- confused, hurt and disappointed. Had he been seduced by his own wishful thinking? Maybe Ann didn't know about how he melted inside every time Thelma looked at him. Maybe he wasn't off Ann's hook, after all.
Some 70 years later, Sherman remembers not so much the unrealistic, adolescent expectations that Ann and he had as 13-year-olds but the freedom he and his classmates felt in 1956 to be themselves – to be “new teenagers” – in a protected environment (insulated from the turmoil in Montgomery, AL, and the pretentiousness of Madison, WI).
He compares it to the feeling he now has as part of a senior community, where nearly everyone has some form of age-related limitation and has the freedom to just “be.” It’s an environment where no one feels inferior or superior because of his or her vulnerability. Disability is just a part of living a normal life.
Sherman’s takeaway tip from his story: Discard simple suppositions from the past that may no longer be helpful or relevant.
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