When I was fifteen or so, I was all thumbs, mumbled stutters, and longing gazes.
One day our English Teacher, Mrs. BrainBury—that’s right she capitalized both Bs—chose to use these personality traits as an example during the “vocabulary minute” with which she started every class. She chose one other person to help illustrate. This was Reba Blossom.
Need I say that Reba was the flower of young womanhood in our class, and in full bloom. And need I add that since second grade Reba Blossom was—shall we say—on my mind.
I should also add that Reba Blossom was definitely not all thumbs, mumbled stutters and longing gazes—at least as far as I could tell. Reba played the violin, making music in school assemblies and at church that made the very soul of a boy long for something more than being all thumbs and mumbled stutters. I watched her standing slender and sure, her agile fingers fingering, her arm swinging the bow across the cat gut, and I quivered with longing gazes. Reba had a tongue of great fame and deftness. Even teachers often quailed at her sass, good humored though it was, it often cut to the core of nonsense when someone went beyond what they actually knew. As for longing gazes? Reba was the master of the superior sneer. I was not the only boy who quailed under its snicker. And probably not the only one who longed for even that minor attention.
And so Mrs. BrainBury called the two of us up to the front of the class. The klutz and Miss Confidence. She had us stand side by side. I think I was doing exactly the opposite of what I would like to have been doing. I was leaning slightly away.
“Cmon, Jeffry,” Mrs. BrainBury said, “Close up here. Both of you, closer together.” She stepped behind us. I felt her hand on my left arm. Then my right arm was touching, pressing against the bare flesh of Reba Blossom’s left arm. Unfortunately, in her little shove, Mrs. BrainBury unbalanced a very clumsy young man. His right foot, dislodged from its quivering stability, came down on Reba Blossom’s left foot.
“Ow!” Reba said. But she said it softly. I had, of course, lifted my foot and was in the process of making a grand klutzy collapse. That is when Reba Blossom put her arm around me and steadied me.
Meanwhile, Mrs. BrainBury had turned away and was chalking on the black board.
“Word for the day,” she said. And she did as she did every day, slowly spelling aloud as she penned in her frilly hand.
All this time, Reba’s hand was burning a palm print in my shirt. I could feel the sweat on my forehead, under my arms, down my back.
I heard Mrs. BrainBury shuffle her feet to turn back to the classroom. “Does anyone know what this means.” she said. She was still behind us, but I could see her in my mind pointing behind her at the board.
“Next to,” Reba said. And she squeezed my arm slightly. I felt my face get even hotter; and I was the most elated boy in the world at that moment.
Mrs. BrainBury may not have heard, at any rate she continued—as she always did—without waiting for a response, “To place or deal with close together for contrasting effect.” She let that sink in.
And here,” I felt her hand next to Reba’s on my shoulder, “We have placed close together for contrasting effect two of our classmates.” Here is Jeffry, shy, male, and a bit awkward—but not much; and here is Reba, extroverted, female, and graceful.” She pushed us even closer together.
Then Reba said, “So, deal.” I don’t believe anyone else, including Mrs. BrainBury heard this. But I did. And I felt the awesome soft pressure of her hand on my shoulder, and the great, vast vacancy when Mrs. BrainBury excused us and Reba’s hand was no longer there.
To this day, I have a special relationship with the word Juxtapose. I cannot hear it without warmth rising in my face and feeling a small violinists hand on my arm.