Betty Lou Bergstrom* was the first girl I ever had a crush on. She was six inches taller than me. She had brown hair and brown eyes and a loud, uninhibited laugh. She almost always won the fourth grade spelling bees. I also was a good speller – probably the best of the boys – and I used to memorize pages of the dictionary at night to try to beat Betty Lou. In Miss Hunnefeld’s spelling bees, all the kids would stand at the blackboard until they were eliminated, one by one, and had to take their seats. Most times it came down to just Betty Lou and me at the blackboard, but then I would falter on some word (e.g., “calliope” or “peculiar”), and everybody would clap for Betty Lou when she won.
One day I told Skipper Burke how I felt about Betty Lou. How beautiful and smart she was and how I might marry her when we grew up. Skipper agreed that she was an excellent speller, but he disagreed about her beauty. I was taken aback. Because our parents were friends, I’d known Skipper for a long time. He was eight months older than me and already several years more worldly. That afternoon he took me to his house after school. We went to his parents’ bedroom, and he got out one of his mother’s issues of Ladies Home Journal. He found a full page advertisement for hair coloring that featured maybe 50 or 60 models with every shade of hair from platinum blonde to jet black. He asked me if I thought the women in the ads were beautiful. I wasn’t altogether certain, but I nodded “yes”. Skipper told me to look them over very carefully and find one that looked like Betty Lou. I looked at each picture. I couldn’t find a single one that had even the slightest resemblance to Betty Lou. I was bewildered. Skipper explained that this was because all the women in the photos were beautiful models and that Betty Lou was not beautiful. Then he told me that Allison Magnuson, another of our classmates, was beautiful. Allison Magnuson? She was a nice girl, but she wasn’t any good at spelling, and I’d never even noticed her. I looked over the pictures again. Allison did look more like the women in the ad.
When I saw Betty Lou in class the next day, she no longer was the same person at all. She was not only very tall, but she had a long neck with a protruding Adam’s apple. Her teeth were big, and she had a long nose. She also had bushy eyebrows. And her hair looked funny. I was astonished. She looked exactly the same way she’d always looked, yet she was totally different. Then I looked at Allison Magnuson. She was just a kid, but she could have stepped right out of a Ladies’ Home Journal advertisement. Crestfallen, I switched my affection right on the spot. I began sneaking looks at Allison during class and imagining that I might kiss her one day. I still liked Betty Lou and I still recognized that she was the best spelling bee competitor, but she’d lost her spot at the center of my daydreams. I felt (and still feel) a little sad and confused about this. But I guess I owe a debt to Skipper Burke for straightening me out and helping to ground me in the ways of the world.
*Pseudonyms used in this story.