KING OF THE CLASS • by Bonnie McCune

His two front teeth shone silver in the sun. They didn’t blind, reflect, dazzle. Instead, they had a soft glow. I couldn’t pull my eyes from them.

His name was Royce. He was sixth grade president, always chosen by the teachers to be team captain during gym, the recipient of the most Valentines during the exchange. He earned his physical distinction following a sledding accident in which he’d knocked out the originals. Those had been perfect, but the replacements were a manifestation of his courage and only added more status to his popularity.

As for me, I was short, plump, and a year younger than my classmates. I knew nothing about gender differences except boys seemed to be larger, stronger and more proficient in sports. I preferred books. If I had any friend who was a boy, Hubert, with red hair, freckles, glasses, was my choice. As comfortable to be around as my sisters, Hubert liked to sketch fantastic spaceships with the precision of a draftsman.

Still something attracted me to Royce. My glance swerved toward him during class, his opinion won each discussion, and his reports about student council highlighted my school week. I admired him as if I were starving, and he, a chocolate sundae. The new silver teeth became the sparkles on top.

I didn’t realize I was falling in love.

Then came the sixth grade graduation party, held at an amusement park. Heat shimmered in the air over sand-strewn aisles. Impervious to the sun’s blaze, the herd of youth stampeded up and down walkways, hooting and hollering around the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Ferris Wheel, pushing and shoving to be first in line.

I wasn’t a child who enjoyed being scared. Horror movies were horrible, and I dodged any attraction more violent than the carousel. I could visualize myself rocketing out of a rollercoaster and hanging from the scaffolding. So my first foray into adolescence trapped me between the joy of freedom and the paralyzing fear of the carnival rides.

My classmates showed no anxiety. They willingly threw themselves into seats that spun, twirled, and lifted them hundreds of feet in the air. They flung their hands up as their heads snapped back by a ride’s force. They whooped with excitement. I didn’t want to cower in a corner. I longed to feel their delight.

As I checked out the scene, I noticed the bumper car line extended half-way through the park. Riders actually had some control over the small vehicles, including steering, speeding, colliding. Some lucky girls rode in the same cars as their boyfriends. I decided to risk the bumper cars.

Once my turn came and the attendant took my ticket, I lowered myself into the car. Zzzzzzzz, the power went on, and off I went. Here and there, round and round. Whump! Another driver ran into me. Whump, whump, whump. Three more in rapid succession. I wanted to hide under the seat, but that action would leave me blind and might prove fatal. I sat up straight and steered as best I could, ricocheting off walls, at the mercy of every other driver. I held myself so stiffly, I was in danger of snapping off a limb. After an eternity, the power switched off and the ride ended. I sagged, then staggered to the exit, every muscle twitching.

There stood Royce. “Wanna go on the bumper cars again with me?” he asked. His silver teeth flashed between his smiling lips, and one lock of his dark hair drooped over his forehead. Tempted beyond reason, I stared at him. I knew the true meaning of sharing the ride. While we were too inexperienced to flirt, too young to think of promises, I would sit beside Royce in the seat of honor.

Then I turned toward the terrifying bumper cars and shuddered. Could I dare the danger of the ride to achieve the bliss of Royce next to me, even the thrill of his arm around my shoulders? Was the risk worth taking?

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “I’ll be with you.”

“Okay.” I walked with Royce to a car and settled in. He carefully steered away from the rowdy riders. Afterwards, he treated me to cotton candy, which we both adored, and we talked about our favorite television shows.

School ended, and shortly afterwards my family moved far away. I never saw Royce or his silver teeth again. I often wondered if we could have become something more than friends. But thanks to him, I’d taken a first tentative step into womanhood as I stood by the bumper car ride. I’d learned an important lesson — that a boy (and not just any boy, but ROYCE!) could favor me.

At my new junior high, wrapped in a newcomer’s cloak of invisibility, I was an interloper, a pariah. As I walked alone from class to class, clutching my notebooks and books to my still-flat chest, or unrolled my brown lunch sack to munch in splendid isolation on a stale peanut butter sandwich, I often remembered how I’d overcome my fear and ridden with Royce. This gave me courage and confidence to reach out to others. I’d discovered, to get a shot at romance, I have to take a risk. Who says young love always ends badly?

Bonnie McCune has been writing since age ten, when the Saturday Evening Post rejected a submission. She lives in Colorado and is the author of novels and short stories. Her interest in writing facilitated her career in nonprofits doing public and community relations. A secret love is live theater, and if she’d been 9 inches taller and 30 pounds lighter, she might have been an actress. For years, she entered recipe contests and was a finalist once in the Pillsbury Bake Off. Bonnie’s writing explores everyday people and their unique lives with humor, close attention, and appreciation.

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