There are many things that can motivate a person to change their life for the better. The sight of their newborn child, the witnessing of the abuse of a parent, or the help of a person in the role of mentor can all help someone choose a proper path for living their life well. Of course, being in love on some level certainly could also help. As for me, ’82 was the year where several motivating factors worked in concert to lead me to the path of education as my way of getting out of the poverty and violence that I grew up in.

I’ve discussed my first crush in any number of postings over the past nine months, but today I want to talk about her in detail. Tomorrow marks twenty-six years since I found myself head over heals. I guess that it’s a silly little thing to remember the day that Cupid’s arrow pierced my heart for the first time. Especially given that as far as I was concerned, she seldom gave me the time of day unless I managed to offend her in some way.

I was fascinated with her from the day that I walked into my gifted track program in seventh grade, but not to the point of emotional distraction. She was five-feet and four-inches of whimsical golden-brown skinned beauty to me even before I found myself in the land of infatuation. Everyone seemed to gravitate to her. She was smart, sarcastic, funny, had this craggy laugh that was somewhere between nerdy and geekish, completely belying how she looked. My first crush was also fierce in her own semi-tomboyish way, not the kind of person someone would want to face in a fight. But being the person I was in seventh grade, a fight with my first crush was almost unavoidable.

It was a fight that either involved me insulting her or one of her friends in some way. It was the week after Winter Break. A part of me still thinks that my fight with her friend Mr. OshKosh and my fight with my first crush is connected, at least in some cosmic sort of way. It was a short fist exchange, one where I found myself feeling every hit. She really knew how to throw a punch. I was surprised by how quickly we went from words to fists. But I was more surprised by how my fist landed as a soft thud onto her chest. It was the second time in six months I had a minor scuffle with a girl, and both happened to have breasts in full bloom. I stopped fighting with her immediately, embarrassed and completely enamored with her, and not just because of making contact with a mammary gland. Her friends had to pull her away from me, calling me “pervert” all the while. I just stood there for a moment, blinded by the light.

We had to do some sort of show-of-talent presentation in our seventh grade English class, either soon after or just before this fight. I don’t remember what I did for my presentation, but I vividly remember hers. My first crush apparently had been taking dance lessons for a few years, and gave our class a brief taste of her ballerina skills. Pirouette by pirouette, jump by jump, she had tiptoed, split, jumped, spun, and danced her way into my mind and heart. She was so athletic, so pretty, so wonderful to watch that I couldn’t get her out of my mind for the next three months.

I had never felt this way before about anyone. Matter of fact, I hadn’t felt much other than embarrassment or anger in a long time before the arrival of tweener love. Seventh grade had been a tough year up to my fight with the ballerina. My grades were well below the straight-A student I’d been from fourth through sixth grade. The whole becoming a Hebrew-Israelite thing was an obvious barrier to forming friendships of any kind with most of my classmates, even if my general weirdness wasn’t. We were slowly falling into working-poor poverty at home, and it was becoming clearer how wrong my mother was about my stepfather being a changed man.

My first crush was the catalyst of change in my life, as it motivated me like nothing else in my life could to find a way to impress her. The only way I knew back then was to be the best student I already knew how to be, to raise all of my grades to A’s or high B’s, to be more vocal in class, to be more open and joking with other classmates, to even chum some of them up just to get closer to her. I did all of those things, and yet she hardly noticed me or the fact that I was on my best behavior when I was around her.

I even had music in my mind and my heart while enthralled with my first crush. If U2’s “Beautiful Day” had existed as a hit song in ’82, it would’ve been my theme music for the spring and early summer of that year. The “sky falls you feel it’s a beautiful day” line from the song is a perfect description of my world between March and June of ’82. Given the music that most of my classmates listened to that year (not to mention my own eclectic music tastes), The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” would’ve been most appropriate.

But recently I’ve rediscovered (for the third time in my life) Stevie Wonder’s classic double album Songs In the Key of Life, and I realized, reluctantly, that the song that stayed in my head the most when my first crush was around was his “As.” Especially the semi-spiritual referenced to eternal love — “until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky/Always . . . until the day that eight times eight times eight is four/Always . . . until the day that is the day that are no more/Always . . .” It’s safe to say that I was in love with her as her and my image of her at the same time.

My next step was going to be to tell her that I really, truly liked her, either by note or by just saying it. But I lost my nerve after watching my stepfather knock my mother unconscious. By then I realized that I had nothing to offer my first crush. Nothing that someone as amazing and as awesome as this ballerina would want from me. I felt like crap for years after that. I had built an image of her in my mind that stayed with me far beyond the end of my crush or even when I realized that the person who was my first crush no longer matched my image of her. I likely was attracted to my second crush because I knew that she couldn’t be as wonderful as my first one, which made her more attainable. Despite all of that, it was that image of the wondrous ballerina that made my summer of abuse at home with my stepfather that much more bearable. It was my seeing my first crush as someone who would easily go to college that motivated me to use my smarts to get to college myself.

Only my wife and my mother have influenced me more from the standpoint of relationships with women than my sweet ballerina. I’ve been married eight years — just about anyway — but I sometimes see myself finding reminders of my first crush in my wife or in other women. It’s a reminder of beauty, of adoration and of regret. Ultimately, I wish that I had told her when I was still a child of twelve, before my life turned as ugly as it did. The fact that I did tell her at thirty-six helps the twelve-year-old in me heal a bit, but only a bit. It matters little when we’re both married with children and life has changed both of us, and in such fundamental ways.

I don’t regret my first crush’s influence on my life. That time of excitement, of stomach-churning attraction, reminded me that I was a human being with real emotions and a person who could achieve things greater than myself because of those emotions. To my first crush, with adoration and love, many, many thanks.