How Romeo + Juliet Almost Ruined My Middle School Social Life

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If memory serves, the first contact I ever had with Romeo and Juliet occurred in middle school English class, when we read the play aloud and struggled to figure out what any of it actually meant. But while the language-level understanding came slowly, it's still a story that wears its heart on its sleeve.

You know the drill: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl realize that their only love hath sprung from their only hate, but get secret-married anyway. Girl gets promised to another suitor, so takes a Middle Ages Ambien that makes her seem dead — but then boy thinks girl is actually dead and kills himself. Once girl realizes the mix-up, she too commits suicide. A plague on both their houses; dark days in Verona where we lay our scene, etc.

One thing that I'm not sure my teacher realized when — for the umpteenth time in her educational tenure — she introduced the tragic love story to a new generation of teens is that our interaction with the play might actually have a long-term impact on the way we thought about love.

Hear me out: I really think Shakespeare's best-known work has been damaging the minds of young readers for literally centuries. Sure, it's valuable historical literature that is certainly worth adding to the curriculum. But isn't it also setting up some seriously f*cked expectations about what true love really looks like?

Not long after I read Romeo and Juliet in class, I also watched Romeo + Juliet on VHS tape at a slumber party, and generally got pretty confused about the concept of love at first sight and the affections of teenage boys. In this film version, which turns 20 this month, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the Romeo to Claire Danes's Juliet. And while to this day I think they were both amazing in those parts, that movie ushered in a very confusing era for me.

It brought up a lot of questions, specifically about the eighth grader I had a crush on, and how to manufacture the balcony scene in real life with this young skateboarder as my personal Romeo.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the young bro, whom we shall call SkaterBoy, had zero idea that I existed (he was a jock, I a theater geek — how star-crossed can you get, right?), somehow this movie implanted in my mind the idea that true love was possible for teenagers. And though I'm sure that some people find the loves of their lives at that age, I definitely wasn't one of them, and despite all the maneuvering I did to get SkaterBoy to notice me, none of it worked — but, idiot that I was, I just thought it meant we were all the more star-crossed.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to have a conversation with SkaterBoy — sure that finally he would look me in the (bespectacled) eyeballs and realize that we had some special spark of romantic destiny between us. I sat down next to him in the school lounge area one day and sort of edged myself as close as I thought would be chill. My hand got really close to his hand; the world got a little fuzzy. It's happening, teen me thought. It's all finally, really happening!

It was happening, all right: SkaterBoy's buddy must have noticed the moony look on my face, and he starting making smooch noises. I know that this sounds like a teen-comedy moment, but I swear to you it was real. SkaterBoy turned to me, finally noticed me, and then — in what seemed like slow motion — this confused, grossed-out look came over his face. He JUMPED away from me (not kidding — leapt) and said something to the effect of "What are you DOING, weirdo?!?!"

What was I doing, weirdo? Well, after that I knew I was turning bright red, and also losing any faith in love at first sight — a concept I wouldn't have believed in the first place if it hadn't been for what Romeo and Juliet had going on. Thanks a lot, Shakespeare. For months after that, whenever I saw SkaterBoy in the halls or outside of school, my whole face would flush like an overripe tomato; if his friends were with him, they would take great pleasure in embarrassing us both by making kissing noises.

Eventually, I got over SkaterBoy. But it took years for me to get over Romeo and Juliet, and the idea true love had to be hard won. For most of my 20s, I dated dudes with whom something less than torturous seemed impossible, until an eventual (sometimes tragic) relationship implosion broke us up.

No one died, in my case. But my love life wasn't great for the better part of two decades — until I snapped out of the idea that maybe, just maybe, love against all odds wasn't the only romance route. It wasn't until I met my current partner and our relationship came without any drama that I began to realize that sometimes easy can feel just as right as anything else.

Which doesn't mean that I don't return to the original Romeo and Juliet, or Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet bonanza. I do — and sometimes I'm still just as melodramatic as back in the middle school days. I just wish that the first R&J interaction came with a disclaimer: Does not apply to real life. If nothing else, it would have spared me that weird SkaterBoy scenario. Any little thing that could have made middle school less awkward would have helped.
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