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My California Gold Crush

My family moved to Orange County for the great school districts, but I loved my elementary school for more than its great reputation. It was there that I had my first real crush. His name was Mr. Burke, and he was my fourth grade teacher.

Mr. Burke was tall with blond hair and heavenly light blue eyes.

One day after school, I told my mom I was in love. She smiled and said something about being at “that age.” I hated having my emotions disregarded because of my youth. If it was real love, how could my feelings be pushed aside? Soon, though, I knew my mom also understood Mr. Burke’s draw.

“I’m enrolling in the fourth grade,” Mom said when she came home from my school’s open house.

I protested. After all, I had dibs.

“Oh please, he’s mine,” she said, winking. “You’re way too young for him.”

In fact, Mr. Burke’s age fell right between Mom’s and mine, and I thought of this as an equalizer. Still, I knew she had a point. I simply didn’t have “it.” I didn’t have boobs or wear make-up. I had braces and carried a backpack. Who was I compared to a grown woman?

But Mom wasn’t my only competition. Every girl in the forth grade was in love with our teacher, so when he announced an in-class contest, every girl was determined to win.
We were studying the California Gold Rush so our assignment was to make a physical representation of the lives of the miners. The student with the best gold miner project would get lunch off campus with our teacher.  

It was my life goal to win this contest.

My dad took me to a museum and we bought a metal gold mining plate and tiny gold miner figurines. I created a mining site on the plate, complete with a river made of blue glitter and a toothpick railroad track.

My masterpiece was a tribute to American miners. It was a symbol of hope for people that dreamed of a better life. It was beautiful. It was poetic. It was totally going to get me a date.
I went to school on the project’s due date, carrying what I assumed would be the best project by far. I was wrong. Collected on a table were fifteen miraculous feats of artistic talent from the other girls, along with a handful of cardboard cutouts and crayon drawings from the boys.
As soon as class started, Mr. Burke inspected each of our projects. Everyone was quiet as he circled the projects and took notes. Finally, he cleared his throat.

“All of the projects are great, I just can’t decide which is best.”

I was sweating.

“So I’ve decided,” he said, “it’s a thirty-way tie and we’ll all go to lunch together!”

Outraged, all the girls began talking at once.

I was heartbroken. I’d worked so hard, and for what? In the end, I was only disappointed. The parallels to the real California Gold Rush did not escape me. Instead of any one person striking it rich, we were all disappointed with our fools’ gold.

I realized my mom was right about me, and every girl in class. We were children, and would be thought of as nothing else. No classy dates, no romance, just that “everyone’s a winner” attitude and hundred-and-fifty-year-old California history. Yuck.

Days later, the afternoon of the once-coveted lunch came. The class was caravanned to the Claim Jumper restaurant down the street. Half of the student’s moms came too, including my own.

I sat quietly and ate, disappointed to be drinking out of a plastic kid’s cup on what I’d assumed would be my first date.

Years later I visited my old elementary school. I was on my high school cheer team, and the squad was recruiting kids for a cheer camp fundraiser. It crossed my mind that Mr. Burke might still be working there but I tried not to get my hopes up.

Standing by the tetherball court, I saw someone in the corner of my eye. I turned around and there he was: Mr. Burke, just as handsome as ever. I smiled, realizing he was seeing me practically all grown up (and in my cute cheer uniform). Maybe this was my chance. After all, I wasn’t ten anymore.

My cheeks felt hot as Mr. Burke walked toward me, his blue eyes full of recognition.

“Hi, Jilly,” he said. My heart skipped a beat. “How’s your mom?”


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