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  • Lijing Cobb

Young hearts

At 12 I entered middle school. There were 6 classes in each of the 3 grades, and each class had about 50 students. If you did the math like a typical Chinese person would, just students alone we had about 900 in number. Every day there were about 1000 people in that small school. From 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, we spent 5 and 1/2 days in school every week, and for the majority of the time we sat in our classrooms. We spent A LOT of time with our classmates, and of course, with the help of hormones, we “liked” and “disliked” certain people.


Over the course of 3 years I “liked” a few boys, most of whom had really bad grades, but were either funny, handsome, or strong. Since academically I always perched at the very tip of excellence, my association with such a lot was naturally (in Chinese culture anyways) a huge “loss of face,” something that led nowhere, and therefore a waste of time. In order to establish myself as an iconoclast I had to, of course, break with tradition in a decisive way, which means breaking the heart of a boy who was in every aspect a great match for me at that time.


Ahhh, retrospection. We were both selected as the class leaders shortly after entering our class due to our academic merits, me in the No. 1 position, him as No. 2. In our roles we worked a lot together, and most significantly in after school hours when all the others had gone home. After a short while I noticed that he looked at me in a different way, like he adored me to the moon and back, and would do anything to insure my happiness. I didn’t like that. I have absolutely no idea why I didn’t. He was tall, handsome, kind, smart, and a natural leader among his buddies. All I knew was that I felt suffocated by the burden of his attention. Take it somewhere else, I wanted to shout. I don’t need it. I don’t want it.


Shortly after I confirmed his intentions in a letter he wrote to me, I wrote back to him with a stern rejection. I still remember how he sat in a corner of the school playground with his head between his hands, sobbing, his buddies huddling around him wordlessly to comfort his broken heart, furtive glances darted my way from time to time. I felt relieved, like I’d just kicked loose a glob of sticky gum on my shoe. I walked away with my head held high, and continued the rest of my middle school career without the burden of puppy love.


Moving on to high school, the rat race began. In my high school there were 8 classes in each of the 3 grades, and every class had at least 50 students in it. The 8 classes in each grade were divided according to academic performance. 3 classes were branded as “fast-track,” meaning most students in those classes had a good shot at entering college. 3 classes were called “intermediate,” whose fate was decidedly uncertain. The last 2 classes were attached to the cringey word “slow,” and these students were literally there to finish high school and move right into society: nobody expected any more academic achievements out of them.

I was in the first category of classes, and one day I caught a cold and was collapsed over my desk during lunch break, my lunch box contents untouched. The classroom was quiet and only 2 or 3 other classmates stayed at school for lunch, all the others gone back home for lunch. In my lethargy I heard footsteps approaching, and when I lifted my head I saw the boy who had been fawning over me for a while holding in his hands a bottle of pills for my cold. Solicitously he started arranging for me to take the pills with the hope of a miraculous recovery on the spot. How dare he think that he had the right to bike home to get these pills just for me? Who does he think he is? Without taking the pills I lowered my head back down onto my desk. I had been tolerating his attention for a while, and now that it came to a point where his goodness was just too much for me to bear, I had to bow out before it was too late. I felt cornered, trapped, unable to breathe: claustrophobic. I needed room to move about and feel unencumbered by attachments, and these good boys were just too much of a whole for my pieces.


After dashing the hopes of this honest, upright, gregarious, happy boy from the get-go, I spent the remainder of my high school years pining after another boy from an “intermediate” class. This boy was best described as non-committal. Throughout our barely-there “relationship,” I was lured on by the possibility of securing his affection, and the more unsure I was, the less I thought about giving up. If that boy had been foolish enough to commit his young heart to me, I would have fled the scene quicker than lightning.


In college I met another goody two shoes boy who quietly and stubbornly followed me every day from my dorm to the library and back, until I finally broke down and talked to him. Since my initial ignore and evade tactic didn’t work on him at all, I kind of gave in and let him shower me with his affections. It would have been a super easy thing to stay in that relationship, get married after college and have that one allotted kid with him, but of course things went awry. On my end.


We all watch movies. We all gasp at the cruelty of girls who seem to be too willing to hurt the feelings of good boys who just want to love them. We all wish they’d know better. And we don’t want to have anything to do with such mean girls. But young mean girls have lots of baggages. If they have not been taught how to recognize and react to kindness in all its forms, chances of them returning kindness for kindness are next to none. If they have been conditioned to see malice behind every gesture, chances of them embracing kindness for what it is is less than slim.


I think of that unintentionally mean girl in my youth from time to time, and think of the good boys that she hurt because she couldn’t tolerate the idea of anyone being good to her. I wish that the wisdom I have gained over the years could turn back the hands of time and allow me to go back to those boys and say I’m sorry. My oldest daughter is almost 11, and as I anticipate all the heartbreaks in her future path, I hope that we have taught her well and loved her enough so that she can stay true to her feelings without causing anyone else unnecessary pain.


Good luck, young hearts. Hold on to your courage and stay brave. There is real love in this world, so don’t let that first mean girl/boy scar you for life. You might just be too good for them after all.


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