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A white piece of paper fluttered onto my lit book as James Knox, moved past my desk.

Song for Emil had been typed across the top of what must be song lyrics.

My forehead wrinkled and questions bumper-carred around my head.

I watched James, the most vocal member of Mrs. Reader’s creative writing class, gather his belongings. We’d never spoken, unless you counted class discussions.

I grabbed my books and hurried into the G Building hall after James, my heart dancing between shyness and curiosity.

I caught up to him in front of the lockers. “Why did you give me this?” I poked the sheet between us.

He shrugged one shoulder. “Read it. Tell me what you think.”

“You wrote it?”

“Yeah.” He disappeared into the stream of students flowing through the hall.

Warm fizz buzzed around my brain. I glanced at the paper, mystified. He’d never read anything I’d written. Did I have book nerd scrawled in Sharpie across my forehead?

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Only Mrs. Reader had seen my work when grading assignments. I went through enough emotional contortions laying my writing—myself—bare to a teacher who graded with a gentle hand. I couldn’t imagine exposing my words to a random classmate.

The guy had guts, I’d give him that.

I lifted my chin a notch, feeling smarter than when I walked into class.

Across the hall Eric Bensen scribbled a huge W with dots across Glenn Gracom’s notebook before Glenn could stop him. Eric’s long legs that earned him star hurdler status on the track team took off toward the double glass doors at the end of the building.

Glenn shook his head, disgusted.

I snickered. I’d learned in the few months I’d attended New Smyrna Beach High School that The Great Bonanza War—drawing breasts on each other’s school supplies—had surged through the male population the year before. Glenn, James, Kyle Avery, and John Scrivano, along with a healthy chunk of the junior class had since matured to pencil snapping, crotch punching (or so I heard), and earlobe flicking.

The next day I dropped Song For Emil on James’ desk, with my comments in blue cursive.

He slid the page under his books as though it contained intel on The Bonanza War.

Ten minutes later, I made an unnecessary trip to the pencil sharpener to walk past his desk.

James’ shoulders hunched over something framed between his forearms.

My handwriting.

Maybe for the first time, my words mattered to a male. One I’d come to respect.

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No one expected her kid brother to care what she thought, but every girl wanted her dad’s ear. Rather than listen, Dad tried to filibuster me into his beliefs—the militia stealing through the South, disarming the populace; time travel as reality; the tenets of some Maharishi. His list waxed long and tedious compared to my thoughts on Queen, the new 55 mile an hour speed limit, The Great Gatsby, or Watergate.

On my way back to my seat, James looked up at me. “What does ‘nuanced’ mean?”

I tapped his literature text. “In the glossary.”

A couple minutes later, James pivoted in his seat and shot me a huge grin.

I lifted my brows. But inside I grinned just as big.

The song was good. I’d penned only praise.

After school I walked down Quay Assisi and hooked south toward the Washington Street Bridge and home in a scraggly stream of students. Sweat trickled down my sternum. I twisted my hair off my neck and stuck a pencil through it.

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Behind me clicked the gears on a ten-speed as someone coasted up beside me.

James.

He put a foot down on the pavement. “Thanks for taking a look at my song.”

“You’re welcome.” I squinted at him, glanced over his shoulder, looking for the underclass girls who orbited him like sparklers. But the closest student was a kid kicking a rock a hundred feet back.

“I’ve got an album completed. Would you critique it?”

The compliment I’d felt when he dropped Song for Emil on my desk surged back, stronger than before. “Sure. No problem.” My opinion mattered. I mattered.

“Great.” He said he’d bring the album tomorrow, stood on one pedal, and took off.

Song For Emil was the first in a stream of albums James fed me over the next six years—regardless of the level of high school drama ebbing and flowing between us.

I commented, “Cliché, great symbolism, Top 40, awkward,” and returned the songs to James like extra credit homework.

James wrote tunes about the girls he crushed on, social commentary, things that angered him, or lint he scraped from the corners of his fertile imagination.

Through his lyrics I met the guy inside—at a time in life when most of us folded our inner persons against our spleens. A gift. One of so many gifts I gained in New Smyrna Beach.

Like girlfriends who spoke sarcasm like I did. We talked so fast our words climbed over each other’s fighting for air space. We laughed loud and often.

The years themselves were a gift. John Scrivano—longtime language arts teacher at New Smyrna Beach High School—labels our high school tenure a time of innocence. And he’s right.

For me and my friends it was a time before sex—as far as I know. Before careers, minivans, and thirty-year mortgages. Before we lost each other to geography, ideologies, or hurtful words. Before alcoholism, unemployment, unhappy marriages, and divorce stole our innocence. Before we birthed a daughter alone, raised a handicapped son, lost a child to death or visited one in jail.

Before our hearts were broken.

Before we overcame. Found healing, God, peace, forgiveness, and—in some instances—found each other again.

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During our days of innocence James carved popularity from the student body with the sharp sword of intelligent humor. He owned any room he walked into. If I had book nerd Sharpied on my face, he had born leader on his. His charisma won him the presidency of the Student Government Association, a berth on the Homecoming Court, and lead guitarist in an “air” band that lip-synced with invisible instruments.

As an adult, James, pastor of Deland’s Bible Baptist Church, regrets his high school shenanigans—carrying a golf club to class, the six months he donned an expansive collection of sunglasses, and a multitude of other grabs for attention. He labels his high school larger-than-life personality, insecurity. But whatever “it” was, the fun spilled over all of us, daily delivering us from boredom.

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A few weeks ago James’ memoir, Tire Tracks, arrived in my mailbox in Arizona with a plea for my opinion. Who knew James and Kyle Avery had lived and nearly died a dozen times as prepubescent boys exploring the wilds and waterways of New Smyrna Beach? I’m on page 231 out of 300, and I give it a thumbs-up. As I always suspected, boys are funny, brave, and a little gross.

James gave high school texture—angst, laughter, and depth.

Dad listened too little, but my words counted with James. I counted. I can’t help thinking that James helped elbow me and my words out into the world.