*The Valentine’s Day Dance dominated everything. It was all the entire seventh grade talked about. The banners along the hallways of Oklahoma City’s F.D. Moon Jr. High told the tale: school administrators decreed that for the first time, to the collective chagrin of eight and ninth graders, the annual dance could be attended by us lowly seventh graders as well.
In study hall, we sat around speculating who’d bring a date to the event. For the ragtag group of shy, off-brand boys I hung out with, merely being allowed into the dance with the older students felt like a triumph of civil rights proportions; that we’d actually ask a female classmate to come with us was too much to expect.
So when Tonce, sitting with us, nonchalantly declared he’d have a date for the dance, the table offered up a skeptical snicker.
We were skeptical because the quiet, gangling, curly haired Tonce–dubbed Cochise after he’d told a classmate his mother was full-blooded Cherokee–was on the nerdy side. He’d laugh heartily at your corniest, most lame joke, even on the occasion when he was its cruel brunt.
We were skeptical because Tonce, a straight-A student who lived with his mother and younger sister in a tiny, clapboard shack of a home literally on the other side of tracks, was dirt poor.
Mostly we were skeptical because to have a date, you have to walk with the girl, and those thigh-high metal braces, hideous platform shoes and those crutches didn’t allow Tonce to walk very well. His tortured gait and the cold, robotic squeak of steel wouldn’t let you forget there was something uncomfortably different about Tonce. Who, we asked without saying such a thing out loud, would date a boy with polio?
But who were we to talk? On Valentine’s Day, each one of our faction purchased a singular ticket into the school cafeteria– transformed into Valentine’s Day Dance Hall with red and white balloons, streamers, cardboard valentines hanging from the ceiling and stencils of Cupid on the windows–and sheepishly held up the wall while watching other kids do the Boogaloo and the Horse to Sly and The Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.”
I don’t think any of us had even given a thought to Tonce not being at the dance until he appeared in the doorway of the cafeteria. He was overdressed, as if on his way to a funeral, in a worn black blazer, black slacks, white dress shirt and a black and gray striped tie.
Next to him stood none other than his date. A diminutive five feet nothing in brown heels, her weary brown wool coat was draped over a simple evergreen dress.
Her long, straight black hair fell just past her shoulders, framing dark, nervous eyes and an exotic, chiseled face whose weather beaten beauty exuded a kind of innocence. Accompanying Tonce to the Valentine’s Day Dance was his mom.
We didn’t know what to make of this, a parent who wasn’t a teacher, in our rarefied teenage domain.
But the way Tonce authoritatively escorted his late 30-something mom across the room; the way he pulled out her chair, lifted her coat from her shoulders and meticulously straightened the single rose pinned on her chest; indeed, the way in which he leaned into her bashful, glowing face, smiled and asked if she wanted finger sandwiches or heart-shaped butter cookies or a paper cup of red punch, made it clear: Tonce wasn’t with his mother. This evening, she was with him.
We wandered over and he introduced her–“Y’all, this is my mother”–but even then she didn’t seem like his mom. Speaking nary a word, her timid smile would wane only in bewilderment whenever one of us referred to her son as Cochise.
Her doting son never left her side, occasionally whispering something in her ear that would cause her to giggle. Discreetly, she studied everything, appearing as fascinated with Tonce’s friends as we were with the concept of parent-as-date.
Little more than an hour into the dance, Tonce and Miss Cleary, his mom, said their good-byes and split. We were mystified that a kid–any kid–would bring his mother to a school dance, and tend to her as if he actually liked her.
The next day at school, Tonce was unfazed by the questions and the teasing, telling us only that his mother said she enjoyed meeting us. It was our classmate Diana, Tonce’s best friend at school, who quietly told us the whole story.
Tonce’s mother, disowned by her family for marrying and divorcing a black man–he left for parts unknown after the birth of Tonce’s sister–was on her own. While she never complained, Tonce told Diana that he knew how it was hard for his mother to clean people’s houses to take care of two kids, let alone one with a disability.
From the age of ten, at the direction of his uncle–his father’s brother–Tonce said he dedicated every Valentine’s Day to his mom. With his uncle’s help, he’d get her a card and a box of candy or red roses.
But on this Valentine’s Day, at age 13, Tonce wanted to do something more. For weeks he’d saved the lunch money his mom had worked hard to give him. Supplementing that with what his uncle pitched in, Tonce created a special day for his mother.
For the first time, as opposed to simply giving it to her, he mailed his mother a card, timing its delivery to be in their mailbox on Valentine’s Day.
Instead of one or the other, this Valentine’s Day his mom took the bus home, walked in the door and found both candy AND flowers waiting for her.
According to Diana, before the dance Tonce took his mother and sister to dinner at Grady’s hamburger stand. He’d arranged for his sister to visit with one of her schoolmates. And so he didn’t have to call on his uncle, who usually drove him and his sister to school each day, Tonce saved enough to finance the evening’s travel by taxi.
When the three finally arrived home, instead of his mom massaging his inflexible legs, her ritual for as long as he can remember, Tonce insisted on rubbing HER aching legs and feet.
This last bit of information Tonce didn’t tell Diana; her mother got it from a woman Tonce’s mom worked with in one of the big houses on the white side of town. Diana heard it when her mom told her father.
Those there to listen to Diana’s story reacted in various ways. One kid called Tonce a “Mama’s boy.” A girl cried. I remember Tonce’s kindness toward his mom embarrassing me for reasons I couldn’t figure out.
In retrospect, I now believe there was more to Tonce than what he showed his classmates. I’ll bet the uncompromising burden of his life shaped a child older and wiser than his years. He simply didn’t show us that side.
However, though none of us admitted it, Tonce’s tale somehow changed our ragtag clique. Because pretty soon, we stopped calling him Cochise.
And, at school, you began to see guys walking with Tonce–to lunch, to the library, wherever–the haunting squeak of leg braces drowned out by Tonce’s hardy, over the top laughter to yet another lame joke.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].