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Sunday, December 17, 2017

“You were my little red-headed girl.”

I lean over and whisper this as, on the screen above us, The Peanuts Movie is playing. Poor Charlie Brown, too crippled by shyness and insecurity to croak out a greeting to the flame-haired object of his affection, is stumbling through various schemes to win her attention.

My wife laughs. “I knew you were going to say that,” she tells me. Of course she did.

I have known her since 1967, fifth grade, 111th Street School in Watts. I guess I’ve loved her about as long. She had — still has — this great smile bright enough to read by. Me, I was this shy and bookish kid who lived mostly in his own head. But from the first day of school, I was captivated by that smile.

She, on the other hand, didn’t know I was alive. She’ll say different, if you ask. Don’t believe her.

Like Charlie Brown, I was forever torn between wanting and fearing her attention. One day in class, some loud-mouthed girl asked me which girl I liked and swore on her immortal soul that if I told her, she would keep my secret until death.

“You like Marilyn Pickens?” she blurted out the instant I whispered it. Marilyn’s head came up. She had heard her name, but had no idea what had been said. I calmly stood, went into the cloakroom and hid until recess.

Then there’s the time I got invited — don’t ask me how — to her 11th birthday party. Went with my one friend, this fat kid named Tony, a social outcast like me. Because I dance with the fluid grace of a hippopotamus on roller skates, my plan was that he and I would keep each other company standing against the wall, looking cool. Or at least, trying our best.

Two records in, Tony abandoned me and joined the scrum of kids gyrating in the middle of the floor. This included the birthday girl, resplendent in a pink miniskirt. He’s out there dancing and having fun with “my” girl and I’m over there clinging to the wall like paint. The hot dance of the moment was called the L.A. Stomp. “It’s easy,” Tony assured me breathlessly when he returned to the wall. “All you’ve got to do is stomp.”

I looked at him. I may have even stroked my chin. Next song, I was out there stomping like I was trying to turn grapes into wine, trying to kill roaches, trying to put out a fire, all the while grinning in desperate hope. I don’t think Marilyn even looked my way.

So this is a column for kids like me, for the Charlie Brown kids, the shy kids, the bookish, weird, inward-dwelling kids who wander the halls feeling solitary and unseen in the shadows of light cast by classmates whose lives by comparison seem charmed. This is a column for kids picked on and misunderstood and eating lunch alone.

I only attended 111th St. School for six months before we suddenly moved. As I had never found the nerve to say hello, I never got the chance to say goodbye. I remember staring morosely out the car window as we drove past the school, hoping for one last glimpse. The car drove on and I knew with a dull certainty that I would never see her again.

I have always loved Charlie Brown for the same reason I loved Peter Parker: They were melancholy and shy, sweetly neurotic souls, perpetually overmatched by the world. But they never gave in. Always, they found their way back to hope. Charlie Brown could never kick that football, never fly that kite, never know the joy of a winning baseball season. But he never stopped trying, either.

There is something to be said for trying — or more accurately, for refusing not to try. Life is not life without hope. And every once in a while, if hope is stubborn enough, it is vindicated.

“You were my little red-headed girl,” I say.

“I knew you were going to say that,” she says. She laughs.

And we sit there in the dark, holding hands.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.) (c) 2015 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Image: Judy van der Velden via Flickr