Saturday, February 6, 2016

Growing Up in America

St. Paul’s and girls

By Rolf Dumke

[Links to previously published installments appear at the bottom.]

Notwithstanding environmental, social, and moral problems of life in and around our house in Linwood Avenue and E. 55th Street, I grew up attending a well-structured Lutheran school for the four years from 5th through 8th grades. St. Paul’s Lutheran Elementary School was located up on E. 55th, above Superior Avenue. I graduated with top grades and was awarded at our graduation ceremony the cherished blue letter P for top sportsman of the graduating class, making my parents proud.
Victorious Youth, “Atleta di Fano,” Greek bronze sculpture (between 300–100 BC),
found in the sea of Fano on the Adriatic coast of Italy, J. Paul Getty Museum in California
    In the last four weeks before graduation I was also the lead male actor in our school play, a comedy of errors, along with Brigitta E., the prettiest girl in our class and in the whole school. She was the younger daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, a slim, red-haired, beautiful girl who held her head up proudly and moved gracefully. She maintained distance from other students because she evidently thought us all to be too juvenile. She remained a pretty solitaire, without friends among either girls or boys. For the class, I had flunked the manhood test by not kissing Brigitta at the end of the play, as the script required, and wound up a tarnished hero.
    I avoided kissing Brigitta during the month of rehearsals, refusing all the boys’ demands before every rehearsal, “Kiss her, Jesus Christ, kiss her!” (to fulfill their own desires for physical closeness to the princess). But I was squeamish; I was not certain that Brigitta actually wanted me to kiss her. She never signalled that it would be okay. Kissing a girl, I felt, was a very intimate thing – it should express a mutual feeling, which was clearly missing. There was no “Besame mucho” feeling here, and I did not want to make a false impression. (Hear Consuelo Velásquez’s fine version of “Bésame Mucho” on YouTube: )
    I learned another important argument from Pastor Dorn, my teacher in both 7th and 8th grades and in my confirmation class before I formally became a member of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, of the United States. Dorn (the German word means thorn, and he truly was our righteous thorn) demanded that we avoid morally questionable situations to avoid temptation. Thus, I wondered whether it was chaste for me to kiss Brigitta on her lips if that expressed a base sexual desire. (Perhaps I had become even more constrained than Dorn himself by the fear of moral turpitude.)
    The tension for both boys and girls in my class rose to a fever point at the final performance, one week before graduation. Nobody gave a damn about how well the play was going; all awaited the final kiss, feeling that our princess should finally be kissed by somebody. Instead, I merely pecked her left cheek with my lips, thereby ruining my reputation that evening as top man of the class.
    Everyone was disappointed, perhaps even Brigitta. I thought that I might have seen faint signs that she had actually expected the kiss. After all, my refusal could also be seen as an unenthusiastic judgment of her desirability.

My athletic success during that last school year had been notable. I was a member of St. Paul’s winning basketball team in the Lutheran Elementary School League and a member of the second-placed team in the touch football league. I won four gold medals at the Northern Ohio Lutheran Elementary School Track Meet in the spring of 1957 for being the best sprinter of both the 100 and 220-yard dashes and winner of both high jump and broad jump competitions. At the celebration after the meet, I was handed the four gold metals and was celebrated for an unprecedented number of victories by a single athlete in the history of the Lutheran track meet. This gave me an instant boost of status among the students at the track meet and at St. Paul’s, lifting me from being a nobody in 7th grade to a person whom everyone wanted as a friend or from whom girls wanted an attending smile. I was the Victorious Youth of St. Paul’s, if only for a month.
    My apparent lack of courage before Brigitta destroyed my standing at the end of my studies at St. Paul’s, and I later reconsidered my non-action as nothing but wimpish. Had I planted a firm kiss on Brigitta’s lips at the end of the play, the act would have been answered by exploding applause and would have established my reputation as a great St. Paul’s man for history. I blew it for silly reasons.
    And, as an afterthought, had she refused the kiss, I could have responded like Clark Gable to Vivian Leigh in the greatest American movie ever made, Gone With the Wind (1939): “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
"Gable-Leigh GWTW-b" by Movie studio - ebay.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Links to previous installments in chronological order of contents:
Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke

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