By some quirk, the families we spent the most time with all had girls my age, and no boys my age whatsoever. I don’t know why this was the case, because it wasn’t like my mom was intentionally avoiding befriending people who had sons my age. Yes, there were a few families with boys my age in our homeschool community, and occasionally we were in the same co-ops with them. But in my family, it was difficult to form friendships with kids if their parents weren’t friends of my parents, so I never really had the chance to get to know any of these boys.
So when it came to crushes, I had exactly two options: Crush on the homeschool boys my age whom I rarely saw and certainly never talked to, or crush on my younger brothers’ friends, who were all at least three years my junior. I did quite a bit of both, moving from the tall, distant, mysterious guys my own age and the fun, familiar, but much younger guys who hung out with my brothers. I suppose crushes are usually awkward, but these seemed doubly so.
But wait! Didn’t I grow up in an atmosphere where crushes were frowned on as “giving away pieces of your heart”? Well, yes. But seriously, try telling that to an adolescent. It won’t work. The crushes are still there, they’re just accompanied by crushing loads of guilt.
I should also mention that my crushes were never sexual. I’ve mentioned before that I sort of shut my sexuality down because sexual feelings were termed “lust” and counted as sin. Instead, my crushes were purely emotional. I would imagine ways a guy might propose, or tell me that he’d had their eye on me. For example, I replayed over and over a story I made up in which the Chinese invaded and were going to put everyone who wasn’t married into reeducation camps, and the guy I was crushing on approached my dad out of the blue to propose marriage to me, thus keeping us both out of the reeducation camps. There were other stories, too, most with similar story arcs. But whatever the storyline, I always moved straight from first kiss to how many children we would have and all of the homemade baby clothes I would make.
I suppose I should explain why I never spoke to the homeschooled boys my own age, whether I was crushing on them or not. There was the fact that I only saw them rarely and had little chance to get to know them, but then that didn’t bar me from talking to them during the limited time I did see them. My friend Kate perhaps best summed up the reasons I remained silent here:
This is my experience: Dating is only if you want to get married, so don’t date in high school. Be careful when you talk to guys, because you might lead them on, so just be careful what you say and how you act. Making friends of the opposite sex is a useless endeavor anyway, since you will undoubetedly end up attracted to each other, and there is no point having a relationship in high school.
But just say you try starting a friendship with someone, when you’ve been told that they are always trying not to undress you in your mind, or that if your shirt goes below your collar bones they’re going to have immodest thoughts about you, or if you stand too close somehow you’re just going to combust and have sex.
And then, imagine that despite all of that you do try to have a friendship, but neither of you have cell phones, and your parents have told you you shouldn’t add guys to your email because it’s “not safe”, and then on top of all THAT, imagine that the only time you see these potential guy friends is your one “social” day at church, where every busy-body homeschool mother in the neighborhood can see your every action, and if you are so much as seen as sitting next to each other, it means you’re getting married.
Because a simple friendship is not allowed, and there is no getting together to hang out unless it is a group setting, and when homeschoolers get together in a group setting anyways, the guys and girls always naturally separate because well…what’s the point of hanging out if attraction isn’t allowed and you can’t get married for another 5 years anyways?
I really didn’t even know how to relate to boys my own age. The girls, we made dollhouses together and had tea parties and canned food, made herbal remedies, and watched our siblings. What would I have even done with the boys my age? They seemed so foreign, their lives so different. Now, my brothers’ friends I could and did talk to, but even then these were not friend-friend relationships. They were always first and foremost my little brothers’ friends.
Anyway, I want to take a moment to sketch out a few of my crushes.
In a strings group I was in, I sat two seats down from a guy we’ll call Thomas. I never spoke to him. Once, the girl who sat between us was gone, and Thomas patted the chair next to him and said “here, move down and sit by me.” I completely melted. It was a very, very rare thing during my adolescence for a boy my own age to actually speak to me, actually and directly speak to me. I am not exaggerating when I say that it almost never happened. Not surprisingly, I dwelled on that moment for weeks, reliving it, every expression, every word. I still never spoke to him, and those were the only words he ever spoke to me. Nevertheless, I spent many moments convinced that maybe, just maybe, Thomas returned my feelings.
For several months I crushed on a boy five years my junior, whom we’ll call Paul. Paul was one of my younger brothers’ friends. I was fifteen; he was ten. I’d known him since he was a toddler, and his parents were good friends of my parents. The thing is, even as I crushed on him I felt it was futile, since I wanted to marry early so that I could have as many children as possible (that whole quiverfull thing, remember), and that pretty much ruled out waiting for someone five years my junior. Since he was my brothers’ friend and we were on familiar terms, I did talk to him sometimes, but then we didn’t really have anything in common or anything to talk about. He was a quiet and studious kid, and I think I liked his seriousness and felt he had good long-term prospects. But that is what I was reduced to: crushing on a kid whom I thought might have what it took to enter a career that could support the number of children I planned to have.
One year at camp (for several years when I was in high school, my siblings and I attended a camp that was basically a descendent of the John Birch Society) there was a family with five boys. One was my age, two were several years younger (twins), and the other two were elementary aged kids. I mention this family in part because while I was able to interact with the twins, I didn’t say a word to the guy my own age, nor he to me. Guys my own age were distant and scary, but guys who were younger than me? I think I could interact with them because I was able to put them in the same category with my younger brothers’ friends. Anyway, one night at dinner these boys’ dad asked me right in front of them what I was looking for in a guy, and I realized he was holding me out to his sons as an example of the sort of girl they would eventually have the chance to bag if they played their cards right. For months after that I blissfully imagined my dad getting a courtship request from the family. It never happened, but a girl could dream.
Probably the most serious crush I had was the one I sustained off and on for four straight years. Simon, as we’ll call him, was several years older than me, and he was from an especially conservative family. His mother and sisters wore headscarves, and his sisters weren’t allowed to participate in the homeschool debate league I was in for fear they might learn to argue with the men in their lives. In retrospect, having a crush on this guy was a pretty bad idea, but I remember thinking blissfully of days spent canning rows of tomatoes with five small children clutching at my skirts. The odd thing about this crush, though, was that I almost never saw Simon. For a time I begged my mom to take me to an extra strings group because Simon was in it (I apparently have a thing for guys who play strings), but ultimately that didn’t pan out. I saw Simon maybe half a dozen times during those four years, and even those few times I saw him I never tried to say a word to him, nor he to me.
When I went to college I finally had regular and sustained contact with boys my age, and froze up because I had no idea what to even do. I did not grow up interacting with guys my own age. I was able to move forward only when I purposed to simply pretend they were my younger brothers’ friends. I do wonder how much of this would have been different if there had been some boys my own age among the children my siblings and I regularly associated with (i.e., the children of my parents’ friends). Still, my friend Kate was in that position and, as you can see from my quote from her above, not much was different. Friendships—actual friendships—between guys and girls still felt taboo and were treated as suspect. And that meant, quite simply, the loss of any opportunity to actually learn how to relate to the opposite sex.