The inclination toward human respect – to be well-regarded by others – starts as soon as we’re conscious of social order, probably after infancy. But it can become dangerous quicksand upon which to make real assessments. Like many enticing mirages of life, just when we think there’s predictable stature, it proves defective and fickle, never really there … ultimately swallowing everything in its vortex.
Lessons in human respect are never easy. And many of us get our first smack-downs while still young.
In sophomore year of high school in the late 70s, I hatched the horrifying idea to ask a popular senior football player to our formal class dance. He had David Cassidy hair and arresting blue eyes, with All-Catholic team awards to feed his prowess. He was at all the right parties, and barely recognized me at the bus stop.
I was at none of those parties, clumsy athletically, and only played tennis. I did unpopular other things – studied piano, worked to make honor roll, and wrote for the school paper. But I longed to sample that “other” crowd, even for just this dance. They spent lots of time carousing at the Jersey Shore, having great unchaperoned fun – while we had hell to pay for coming in 10 minutes late, or not putting gas in Mom’s station wagon.
Time to make the dreaded call. I dialed his number scores of times before forgetting to hang up. Terrifyingly it rang, as my heart crashed like a timpani drum. His mother answered and passed him the phone. Sputtering the invitation, I heard nothing. He hesitated, then sighed, “Yeah, I guess so.” He didn’t ask the date or details, just hung up. I should have been insulted, but was euphoric.
I was getting in over my head. Ignoring instinct, I told my friends the next day. Then, like a tsunami, the alpha party girls rushed me at lunch. “He would have gone with anybody – he’s just a nice guy.” He is? For months I was assaulted with their putdowns. But I made my dress, disregarding all signs of blunder.
“What parties are we going to?” he muttered the week of the dance. He expected cool gigs as part of the deal. A scary new predicament: I wasn’t invited to any. The night of the thing, he arrived late with another couple in the car, forgot my flowers, and had to contend with my father. After chastising him, Dad took a few pictures and told him when to have me home. It went from bad to worse. He didn’t talk, drank a trunk-load of beer, and hardly danced. I fought hot tears for hours.
I was out of my element, and longed to be back at home. Isn’t much of life like this? We compromise self-respect for illusory ideals … and it all becomes crushingly clear.
Fast-forward to another guy from high school whom I married, Joe — with tropical blue eyes, All-Catholic athleticism, sacrificial gentleman to the end. It was his idea to care for Dad in the twilight of his life. He embodied real respect, and I’ve appreciated the blessing to this day.
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.