As the New Kid In Town, it was daunting at first to navigate the culture in St. Charles versus the first two years I spent at the much smaller Kaneland High School out in the cornfields of Illinois. It was no less complex out there, just different.
Yet those first few weeks in the new school bore fruit. There were fast friends made. Lifelong friends, in fact. One of them was a sweet girl named Marge Cloonan. She was the first fellow classmate I met other than Rob Walker, who introduced me to her friend Rita Ayala that day as well.
Marge loved to clown around and tease, so she helped keep my head on my shoulders as running success came along. To this day, she’s a loyal friend who keeps in touch through Facebook. She also provided plenty of emotional support during the eight years when my late wife was going through ovarian cancer treatments. While looking up some photos in the 1974 yearbook to include in today’s recollections, I found the handwritten message from Marge on the back page.
It reads: Well, keep up the great job. You know, even though you excel in many things, you still have the time to be nice. 30 years from now when you’re famous for painting and writing, I’ll be able to look back and say “I knew him! He even painted a picture for me! ” Ha ha! How many gold medals are ya going to win in the Olympics? So don’t forget the light bulb and the werewolf! O.K.! Marge Cloonan ’75 .P.S. don’t forget the jokes “That even Marge would laugh at.!”
She and I spent considerable amounts of time in study hall together. I well recall messing around when I should have been hitting the books. But hey, that’s part of high school, am I right?
To this day, whenever I (purposely) make a bad joke on Facebook, Marge will put me in my place. “Go wait in the car…” she’ll snark. Or, one of her favorite, far more simple retorts is her comment: “Dork!” It always makes me laugh.
Those first few weeks were heady experiences competing in races and learning the social rules of a new high school. During the third week of classes, my new friend Rita approached and said, “Why are you so stuck up? Is it because you think you’re better than the rest of us because you’re a good runner or something?”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
“You never say hi in the hallway,” she chided me. “You just walk by…”
“I….I didn’t know I was supposed to say hi,” I responded. “I’m just thinking about stuff. That’s all.”
And so it went. My combination of gregarious desire to be liked was combined with a lack of self-confidence and ADD self-absorption that made it interesting to navigate the social whirlpool.
Then I was notified through the Girl Network that a certain cheerleader named Rhonda on the cross country squad was interested in me. I was thrilled at this news, yet a bit intimidated. She was a pretty blonde girl whose social sophistication and awareness seemed a bit beyond my range. On our first date, I showed up at her house with my dad’s car and stood in the doorway facing her family, including her older brother and sister. As we got ready to leave, her sister chirped, “Oh look, he’s licking his lips! He must be excited for this date!” Her brother just turned and left for the other room.
I was excited. That cheerleader was part of the squad that supported us at meets. We never had cross country cheerleaders at Kaneland. These girls not only cheered for us, they definitely understood the nature of the sport, and respected what we did as runners. Their other cheering assignment during the winter months was wrestling. A while back I interviewed Ellen Erickson, one of those cheerleaders, and she specifically mentioned that her cheer team loved supporting the individual efforts of the athletes in those two sports.
My relationship with Rhonda didn’t last more than a few weeks. We had a few semi-classic teen dates between us before the cross country season ended and we both moved on. I do recall a first kiss that made the sky above us seem to change color in my head. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a bit of teen love and a few Night Moves at the right time in life. It surely built my confidence a bit to date a pretty cheerleader during that competitive period in life.
Our paths didn’t cross much after high school. But on the day after my wife gave birth to our first child, we moved to the front desk to check out with our boy Evan. I was struggling with one of those arm-held plastic cradles when I looked up to find Rhonda working at the front desk. “Hey, uh…hello,” I stammered. She looked up with her clear blue eyes and said, “Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” I told her. At that moment, a Todd Rundgren song that was popular during our dating period popped into my head.
Hello it’s me
I’ve thought about us for a long long time
Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong
There’s something here doesn’t last too long
Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine
Seeing you or seeing anything as much I do you
I take for granted that you’re always there
I take for granted that you just don’t care
Sometimes I can’t help seeing all the way through
I honestly can’t hear the song Hello, It’s Me without thinking about Rhonda and the naive innocence of that period in life. Even so, there was always an awareness that what felt real in the moment sometimes wasn’t. I’ve always thought that song was as much about self-realization as it was about the gain or loss of a relationship with another person. If you point the lyrics back at yourself, the song becomes a study of self-perception, about knowing the person you are and wondering about the person you will someday become.
Think about it. Look at the lyrics again. I know I did when they were gracing the radio airwaves way back when.
That’s the tricky thing about social circles. They often come from behind to catch you off guard. That’s not to say that we should live our lives constantly looking over our shoulders. There’s enough anxiety in daily life not to ruminate about what’s left behind or who might be catching up to you in the present.
But we certainly can learn from loves won and lost, and the races we’ve run in between. That’s the secret to life, in all its social circles.