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Two worst words ever

Eighteen years ago, I was sitting in a car with Elysha. We had just enjoyed dinner and drinks with friends, and I had driven her back to Wolcott School, where we both taught and where we had left her car before going out for the evening.

Elysha and I weren’t together yet. My crush on Elysha had begun more than a year before, but after a year of assuming that she was far too beautiful and smart to ever fall for someone like me, there was hope. Our friendship seemed to be growing into something more.

Honestly, as I write these words almost two decades later, I still can’t believe it. On July 15 of this year, Elysha and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage, but I still have moments to this day when I look and her and think, “I can’t believe I’m married to this woman.”

That was how I was feeling as we sat in that car, chatting about the previous evening. Then things got quiet, and Elysha said, “You know I like you.”

I couldn’t believe it. My thought was, “No, I didn’t know you liked me. I hoped that someday, when I became twice or three times the man I am today, you might consider liking me. But liking me now? No. Not possible. Also, hooray!”

Instead, I said this:

“I’m flattered.”

Nothing more. Not one solitary word beyond those two epically stupid words.

In my defense, Elysha was ending a relationship with another person at the time, and I wasn’t quite sure if she had officially ended it or not, so I wanted to do the right thing while also doing the right thing.

This, it turns out, is not a defense. But it was what I was thinking.

Elysha paused, presumably waiting for me to say something not so stupid. When I didn’t, she said, “Okay. Good night,” and exited the car.

Then she drove away.

It wasn’t until I was pulling into the parking lot of my apartment complex a few minutes later, thrilled beyond belief that Elysha liked me, when it hit me like a bolt of lightning:

“I’m flattered? You said, ‘I’m flattered?’ Oh my God! What the hell were you thinking?”

I panicked. The woman who I was probably already in love with had been brave enough to make the first move, and my response hadn’t been “I like you, too!” or “Let’s get married!” or “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

It was, “I’m flattered.”

I called Elysha. No answer, of course. This was before text messaging, and at the time (which still exists today) Elysha didn’t always, or ever, check her voicemails.

Still, I decided to leave one. Pacing by the dumpsters in the parking lot, I left a long, pleading message urging her to forget my momentary failure of brain cells and call me back immediately.

She never did.

The next morning, I found a note on my desk from Elysha, asking me to forget what she had said the night before and assuring me that we could still be friends. She apologized for making things awkward.

I snatched the paper off my desk and marched up to her classroom. I found her sitting behind her desk, preparing for the day.

I held the paper aloft, shook it, and said, “No. This cannot be. I was stupid last night. I like you, too. Please forget last night. And for once in your life, could you please check your voicemail.”  Then I crumpled her note into a ball and tossed it into the trashcan.

The rest is history. Less than three months later, we were living together, and by the end of that year, I would propose to her at the top of the steps in Grand Central Station while two dozen friends and family, hidden in the holiday crowd, watched.

I told that story to my students a couple weeks ago. Standing on the spot where I told Elysha for the first time that I liked her – now a grassy, outdoor seating area after her former classroom was bulldozed to the ground – I told the kids about that night, those two stupid words, and my frantic attempt to fix everything.

They laughed. Even they knew how stupid those two words had been.

Yesterday, I stood on a stage under some trees in front of our school for our fifth grade celebration. My kids are moving onto middle school. I spoke about our strange, hard, and glorious year together, then I invited each student to the stage so I could say some amusing and heartfelt words about them before awarding them with a certificate of achievement.

After I was finished speaking about the first student, I turned, reached out, and shook her hand.

She looked at me and said, “I’m flattered.”

As I shook the hands of each student, they smiled and said, “I’m flattered.”

Children these days are far more ingenious, organized, and strategic than my generation ever was.

Also slightly crueler.

You cannot begin to imagine how much I will miss these kids after today.