It was June 17, 1959. The occasion was the seventh-grade graduation dance at School 23 in Rochester. I was a typical soon-to-be 13-year-old. I thought I knew almost everything in the world and was fairly confident that all good things in life would eventually be mine for no other reason other than I was entitled to them.
Her name was Elaine. I don’t remember very much about her because I never knew very much about her. I do remember that there were two graduating seventh-grade classes, and Elaine was in the other class. She had moved to the neighborhood several months prior to graduation. Because she was placed in the other class, I never got to know her. It wasn’t intentional. Our paths just never crossed.
As I recall, the dance was a typical adolescent dance. The girls hung around with the girls, the boys with the boys. Occasionally a girl and boy would dance together and everyone would take note of it. If the same couple danced three or four times, they were as good as married, or at least engaged.
One of my close friends, Joan, approached me and wanted me to dance – not with her but with Elaine. Elaine was shy and none of the boys paid any attention to her. Joan pointed out that Elaine was pretty and probably a good dancer, and that if I would just dance with her once, other boys would ask her also and everything would be OK.
But everything wasn’t OK. I couldn’t do it. By the way, Elaine was the only African-American student in the seventh grade at School 23. Maybe she was the only black student in the entire school – I can’t remember.
I thought my decision made sense. It wasn’t because Elaine was a minority. Not really. It was because everyone would know that the only reason I asked her to dance was because she was black.
I explained it to Joan. After all, how could she expect me to dance with someone I’d never spoken to? Joan told me she was disappointed in me and walked away. I was relieved. I had handled an uncomfortable situation logically. And I really believed that Elaine was better off not dancing at all. Who needs someone asking her to dance just to put on a show?
For many years, I have thought about my judgment. As an adult, it is abundantly clear that I did my classmates and myself a great disservice. I should have recognized that I had an opportunity to send a message of acceptance to Elaine and the other students.
Now let’s fast-forward to the present. I am working as part of Rochester’s Monroe High School 50th reunion committee. Our reunion is planned for August. I was assigned to contact students whose last names began with K-Q. On my list was Elaine.
I called her a few weeks ago. She lives in Georgia. We talked about the upcoming reunion. We chitchatted about our careers and such. Elaine said she barely remembered me. I think she was being polite and didn’t remember me at all. I brought up our elementary school dance. I told her about the non-incident and how it has affected me over the years. I also said I was sorry that I hadn’t used better judgment and that I wish I had asked her to dance.
I told Elaine I was hoping she’d attend the reunion. I want to correct the error I made 54 years earlier and ask her to dance. I started to cry when she said yes, she would try to attend and yes, she would dance with me. Thank you, Elaine, for saying yes. I’m sorry it took me 54 years to ask you.