My Dinner with Charla

I'm seated at a cozy corner table in the City Diner, a 1950s-themed restaurant in Weatherford, Oklahoma, having just ordered, with somewhat red face, the "Ooby Dooby," a chicken breast sandwich with barbecue sauce. I usually observe a strict boycott of such theme restaurants but on this night I'm willing to bend my rules. The restaurant, you see, was selected by my dining companion, Charla Hahn.

This name probably means little to you, gentle reader, but it has, since the time I passed from childhood to adolescence, been one of great resonance to me.

For four years, I worshipped Charla Hahn from afar, and in this I don't think I was alone. I'm willing to bet that most of the awkward young men who attended junior high and high school with Charla felt very much as I did.

Charla was the girl next door of girls next door, the Mother of All Homecoming Queens, managing to be at once utterly wholesome and sexy as hell, a cheerleader with sandy blonde hair, blue-gray eyes and a smile that made your knees buckle. Charla was totally out of my league on my best day and, to top it off, two years ahead of me in school. And let's face it, no gap in the world is less likely to be bridged than the one that exists between an attractive girl in the ninth grade and an adoring dork in the seventh. I knew this even then, as well as I knew my own name. Only fourteen years old when first I became aware of her, Charla might just as well have been thirty.

Of course that two-year age gap, once so daunting, is now meaningless; today Charla and I are, for all intents and purposes, the same age. And here I am, some 25 years after I first became aware of her, finally enjoying a dinner for two in her company. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, for those blue eyes still shine as brightly as ever; that smile still sparkles.

As does, alas, the stone on Charla's left ring finger. Though I wish I could tell you that she'd waited for me all these years, the truth is, Charla's name is no longer Hahn. She's been married, and happily so, for years. She and her husband Mike are the proud parents of three terrific kids. One may wonder why then, since I knew all this before I contacted her, I bothered to look Charla up and invite her to dinner? Call it a lark -- a sop, perhaps, to that dorky kid who would have been thrilled to learn that one day he'd be dining alone with Charla, even all these years -- and kids -- later.

And in many ways this is an old-fashioned date, one that evokes those awkward adolescent evenings of my high school years. Having flown home to Oklahoma City for the holidays, I was forced to borrow my father's car, just like the old days. I picked Charla up at her home, where I was obliged to meet her family (although it was her husband giving me the once-over, not her father). I even opened the car door for her, prior to making semi-awkward small talk on the way to the restaurant. Fortunately, once we were seated in the restaurant, conversation flowed easily.

Charla and I have precious little catching up to do. The truth is, we have limited shared history. We lived, for most of those years we attended school together, in parallel universes. She hadn't even known I existed, I don't believe, until we shared a geometry class in my sophomore -- her senior -- year. And even after that, our "relationship" was limited to exchanged pleasantries as we took our seats in Mr. Blackmon's classroom and perhaps a smile and a quick wave when we encountered each other in the hallways between classes.

I wanted to have a conversation now with Charla that we would never have held back then. Although I was a smart kid, well-liked for the most part, and considered funny by most of my friends, I wasn't terribly good-looking and was notably lacking in athletic prowess -- which was a guy's one sure ticket to influence and popularity. So while everyone knew who Charla Hahn was, only people who came in direct contact with me -- teachers, classmates, and such -- knew who Brett Leveridge was. Might there have been a downside to being in Charla's position -- so well-known, so closely watched?

The iconic image of the perky cheerleader who's elected homecoming queen carries a certain resonance for most American males, but I wouldn't have guessed the same was true for females. I learned the hard way that it is. Once Charla agreed to dine with me, I shared the news of our pending "date" with several female friends. Their reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

I was taken aback at the vehemence of their disapproval. After all, these were good, supportive friends, none of whom had ever met Charla. But she seemed to represent for my friends the cheerleaders and homecoming queens of their own youth; they would award her no slack. Told that I wanted to explore the ups and downs of Charla's high school years, one replied, "You want us to feel sorry for little miss homecoming queen?" Another predicted, with some glee, that Charla would now be overweight. Mee-ow!

Charla is not the least bit surprised when she learns of these reaction; she's had plenty of experience with such sentiments, it seems. "High school girls are the worst," she says, laughing. "They can be such bitches! They're just terrible. I had more friends that were boys. There'd be five or six guys hanging out at our house. They'd play basketball, eat dinner, whatever. I just got along with them better, a lot of the time, than the girls."

"I think it's human nature, to a certain extent, if you were not up for homecoming queen or cheerleader or whatever, to resent those who were. Maybe you don't understand why it wasn't you in the spotlight so you find fault with those who were. We've all reacted that way. I certainly have."

I remember how special it made me feel, at one point in my life, that Charla Hahn even knew who I was, that she might actually greet me in the hall. That now strikes me as an odd sort of confirmational power to award to someone, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that there was a downside to holding that sort of influence. After all, I've seen my share of John Hughes films.

"There were horrible, horrible rumors," Charla recalls. "There was a time in high school when the rumor was that I'd had an abortion. I mean, I was a virgin all through high school and here were people saying that I had been pregnant and had had an abortion. Some people seemed determined to hate you, even when you tried to be nice. So you'd have your little circle of friends that you tried to stay connected with, and then you'd do your best to be nice to everyone else."

I wonder if she ever felt trapped by her prominence at school. "Oh absolutely. There were times when I told my mom, 'I wish I could just go to school and not have to worry about what I'm wearing and how my hair looks.' Or that 'today's a ballgame and I'm supposed to be up and feel good, no matter what.'

"But there were days when I didn't feel that pressure. I remember taking an anthropology class where there wasn't a soul that I knew. And I learned so much from those people that I had never run around with. That was an eye-opening experience. They were probably thinking, oh here's Miss Cheerleader. But I had a chance to just be myself and I was grateful to them for letting me see the other side of things. They didn't care who I was. This was a class, that was what was important. So get down on your knees and start digging, you know? And it was wonderful. I loved it because nobody cared. For that hour every day, I could just be me, which brought a certain sense of freedom."

There weren't as many avenues open to an active girl in those days. Does Charla, a cheerleader from the eighth grade all the way through four years of college, ever resent that she couldn't compete on the field herself instead of cheering on male competitors? "Oh, definitely. The opportunities that my daughter has, with softball, basketball, and soccer -- none of that was available. Or track and field.

A teacher for nearly twenty years now -- first seventh- and eighth-grade chemistry and biology, and now second- and third-grade physical education -- Charla certainly understands the pressures young women continue to face: "My daughter's a cheerleader, and she also sings beautifully. And since she takes after her father, she's much taller than I am -- she's about 5'8", compared to my 5'2" -- and has played basketball and last year even threw the shotput. But this year, she's not going out for track and field because 'people in shotput are big,' she says. People have called her 'big.' She's not fat but she's big. I think she's beautiful and I tell her so: 'Honey, you're beautiful. Don't listen to those people.'"

It strikes me that Charla is now confronted with a challenge diametrically different from the one her own parents faced. Where they may have worried that Charla would come to value her attractiveness above her other good qualities, Charla is faced with convincing her own daughter that she's more attractive than she may currently be able to imagine herself, based on the reactions of others.

"My first year of junior high, I was named the seventh grade attendant to the yearbook queen. And do you know who judged that competition? Steve Owens." Steve Owens was, and remains, a local hero in Oklahoma, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Oklahoma a year or two before this incident. "They sent pictures to him and he picked the winners. Our junior high yearbook queen and her seventh and eighth grade attendants were chosen by a stranger who selected us solely on the basis of our appearance. We never even met him. Can you imagine that?"

Things close early in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and it soon becomes clear that we are holding up the serving staff at the City Diner. So we call it a night and I drive Charla home. I meet two of her three kids (including her tall, talented daughter, who is indeed quite lovely and will, I hope, one day come to treasure every single one of her 68 inches of height).

Like most of my first dates back in high school, this one ends without a goodnight kiss, but for once, I'm acting out of propriety, not insecurity.

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