I was 12 the first time I fell in love. His name was Keith. We were in seventh grade together in a small school where no one paid us much attention. I was a misfit. He was the new kid. It was perfect.
I don’t know how or when it started exactly. I suppose, like the cliché, it just happened. I do, however, remember that Christmas. We had a party at school. I wore my mother’s purple velour top with multicolor flecks that showed in the light—a top so plush I thought nothing in the world could be as soft and warm or could shine so quietly. I was wrong on both counts.
As we walked into the Christmas room, Keith reached for my hand. He didn’t have to reach far. In classic 12-year-old girl style, I had it hanging by my side at the ready, just in case. At that moment, with the simple touch of his hand, I heard the love that I had missed in the Christmas songs. Unexpectedly, I realized they weren’t just about Santa and snow.
They were love songs.
On Valentine’s Day, he hid a small box of chocolates in my school cubby. I don’t remember thanking him, maybe I never did. The surprise was so overwhelming. Red and shaped like a heart, the box sparkled not unlike the velour top from my mom, not unlike my heart when we held hands. I took the box home and tried to hide it, but I couldn’t keep it a secret. My first box of chocolates! After dinner, I stroked the beautiful lid gently before setting it down to share the contents with my family. Then, the unforgivable happened: my dog Frodo stole the lid. I cried when my mom gently brought me the chewed remains of my sparkly heart.
Suddenly our little romance was the talk of the school. Laura the not-blonde girl had a boyfriend. Laura the didn’t-quite-fit-in girl got the only box of chocolates given out that year. Laura the invisible had broken the rules. Rules she never knew existed. Big feelings were suddenly big news.
From the kids with their sing-song chants to the teacher who wouldn’t stay quiet, the teasing was relentless. One day in class, my chair tipped over backward with me in it. I landed painfully with the sort of fanfare undesired among teenagers and adults alike. All eyes were on me when my teacher called out loudly, “Falling in love, Laura?” I was mortified; my classmates were delighted. I righted my chair, but I couldn’t right my heart.
Where others heard laughter, all I heard was betrayal.
By Easter, the campaign to break us was in full swing. Keith had become the most popular boy in school. All the girls laughed and twirled their hair when they talked to him. To me, they said he wasn’t good enough and that I should find someone more worthy. As bad as that was, their questions were more horrifying. They asked if we would “go all the way.” They wanted to know if and where he touched me. They inquired if I’d seen his “you-know-what.”
We hadn’t even kissed.
I broke first. Keith tried to hang on, but young love can’t survive seventh grade. Ours was no exception. After that, my mom’s velour top was just a soft purple shirt. Christmas songs returned to the land of Santa and snow. And once again, I faded into the background along with each and every one of my big feelings.
Today, I live with my one true love and an amazing teenager we are blessed to raise—a true love of a different sort. I’ve found a tendency among other moms to either lament or belittle tween love. Somehow the term “love” always seems to come with quote marks around it when applied to young people.
As if tweens can’t possibly know love, as if big feelings aren’t the same as real ones.
Thankfully, my mom knew different.
But for all the horrors of seventh grade, I can still see warm eyes glancing at me softly from across a hostile room. I can still feel our only kiss a year later at the moment of our final goodbye—soft and warm with just a hint of sparkle. I carried those moments with me (along with, I’m embarrassed to say, the tattered, heart-shaped lid) until I finally heard again the love in those Christmas songs singing to my heart. And then I knew that I was home, that my mom was right—early big feelings are as real as lasting ones, and that Keith, in all his innocence, had helped me find everlasting love 20 years after that first sparkling Valentine’s Day and his touch so soft and warm on my heart.