09.11.12 Truth & Wisdom
BY Jen Tobin
Allison didn’t go to school with me. She lived directly across the street. When I met her, she was riding her Big Wheel on the sidewalk wearing nothing but a diaper, sucking her thumb, security blanket wrapped in fingers. She called out to me, thumb still in mouth, “hi, Jen!” I had no idea how she knew my name. I suppose our parents had talked and her Mom told her about the new girl across the street. It was a different time, 1979. You could let your three year old out of the house alone and not worry so much. At least, her parents did. At any rate, we became fast friends. Young children don’t judge so harshly without the influence of peer pressure. I was okay in her eyes.
Genetically speaking, I’m kind of a small person. I’ve always been tiny. I was the shortest one in my class during elementary school and suffered the consequences— always front of the line, front of the classroom and picked up and tossed during recess. No one wanted to be my friend, but everyone wanted to show off how strong they were by picking me up.
In fifth grade, every girl had a crush on Vinnie Anderlionis. He was cute and charming, all dark hair and Chinese-American eyes. He was the most “ethnic” person in this class of white bread Catholics and we all dug him. Katie Callahan dared him to ask me out. “Who’s Jen Tobin?” he asked quizzically. “The short, dorky girl with the glasses…” she said, and all who were circled around broke into fits of “ewwww!” and laughter. Of course he wasn’t going to ask me out. I was the short dorky girl with the glasses.
I was in speech therapy for a lisp from first grade to third. I couldn’t quite pronounce my s’s without sticking my tongue out of my mouth and curving my jaw to the side. I had no idea this was a problem, but my mother was informed by my first grade teacher, Ms. Melton, that she couldn’t understand a word I said. So off I went for the first 30 minutes of school each Wednesday to the little room attached to the cafeteria. I would sit in a tiny plastic yellow chair and the speech therapist, a young kind woman, would have me say “S” words again and again while putting my teeth straightly together, tongue behind bottom teeth. I would be given homework: one page of paper with a list of words put on what looked like a picture of a path from the game Chutes and Ladders. I suppose this was supposed to make it fun to go home and practice talking for 30 minutes. It didn’t. I would sit in front of my mother and repeat, “snake, snake, snake” ten times. And then move on to “sun, sun, sun…” My mother would hold up her fingers to count each word so we wouldn’t lose track. She would then initial the paper to show I’d done it. I forged her signature a few weeks in a row and got caught. At age eight, I had no idea how they knew it wasn’t hers. I thought it looked pretty damn good. I got grounded for a week and couldn’t play with my friend Allison.
Allison was a year younger than I was and two grades below me. This made her feel a lot younger, but I was immature for my age, anyway, so it didn’t make a difference. I had no real friends at school and would look forward to coming home and going over to Allison’s to share a canister of Cheetos and watch television. We would watch the Price is Right on Tuesdays because we got out early, and in the summer we would watch everything; we adored gameshows.
We went on vacations together, summered in her parent’s house in New Hampshire and kissed our pillows and pretended they were boys. We fought like sisters and vowed to grow up and marry brothers and live in a duplex.
When Allison started high school, her family moved to a town 20 minutes away. This felt like another country after having her ten feet from my own house almost my entire life. Soon after she moved, I got my driver’s license and would take my 1972 Ford Maverick to her house and sleep over on the weekends. At one point, she set me up with her boyfriend’s friend. We almost achieved our dream of being with brothers, but not quite. I went to college and Allison was finishing up high school. We both broke up with those people and moved on. Allison ended up getting pregnant her Senior year. I couldn’t really imagine what that must have been like for her. I didn’t have sex in high school and if I’m being real here, I played with dolls until I was somewhere in the vicinity of fourteen. I didn’t even want to kiss the first two boys I dated, so pregnancy was not going to be a problem.
Life got in the way, as it sometimes does, and we started drifting apart. I moved to California and she married the father of her child. They are still together all these years later and happy. In a way, our lives mirror each other’s from 3,000 miles apart. I think of her often and remember the invaluable friendship I had with her so many years ago. I see her and her 18-year-old daughter on Facebook and wonder how so much time has passed…wonder what my life would have been like without her as a child.
Lonely as Hell, I imagine.
Her friendship helped me feel like a real person, helped me escape from the bullies at school, boosted my confidence and gave me a safe-haven of unconditional acceptance; isn’t that what real friends do for one another?
I still wear glasses and the lisp is mostly corrected. I’ve maintained my adoration of gameshows and have an affinity for Cheetos. And though my life is happy and fulfilled, I’d give anything to have another summer in New Hampshire, watching Win, Lose or Draw and making out with my pillow.
How have your childhood friends influenced who you are? I’d love to know!
Photo Credit: Marion Tobin, 1980