Part One: A History
The summer of 1996 was probably my most defining summer of my life. I’m serious. It was the summer I turned fourteen, and the summer before my freshman year in high school. Without being too dramatic, I feel I would not be in this exact spot if it wasn’t for Michigan Technological University’s Summer Youth Program.
If you have only known me as an adult, you may be surprised to know that I was once painfully shy. There are still remnants of that person hidden inside of me today. Case in point: I’m not suffering much through this Stay Home executive order during the COVID-19 pandemic. I gain strength from solitude and time away from other humans. It’s how I can manage being front and center of 30+ students at a time on a daily basis. I am an introvert.
I have always strived on small groups of close friends. My first best friend was Adam. By default, our mothers spent much time together because they had children in similar ages who attended the same small Catholic school. Adam and I were the youngest in our families. We played a lot together. Once we were in elementary school, our friendship waned. I do remember many times at his house, envious that he got to have Flintstone’s vitamins, and watching our older brothers play video games. My family had moved to the country, I rode the bus to school with one of my other classmates, Rachel. Rachel and I were the best of friends for about five years. We attended each other’s birthday parties, I was in on her secrets, and I even adopted my first black cat from her. As we headed into our preteen years, even that friendship drifted apart. She had cousins–built-in friendships–at our small school, and as she headed up the ladder of popularity, I felt pushed to the side. In small towns, it seems that those large families tend to flock together. Probably because those large town families ended up merging together in one way or another.
I was still friends with Rachel, and the other four girls in my class. Despite typical quarrels through our “middle school years” (it was a K-8 school, so we didn’t actually have a middle school), we ended up leaving Sacred Heart on good terms. The high school allowed us to find more people that were like ourselves. The other four girls did seem to end up in the same circles. I was part of them for a while. But it wasn’t until my summer at “nerd camp” that I truly felt I belonged.
Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Michigan Tech is the university where my parents met. It’s where my brothers would end up attending and graduating. It’s where I chose not to attend, choosing their arch-nemesis school, Northern Michigan University. In the summers, Michigan Tech hosted their Summer Youth Programs: offering “college” classes (watered down versions, of course!) in everything from genetics to mountain climbing to mixed media painting, allowing teenagers to experience dorm life and dorm food, and providing potential scholarship opportunities if you so desired. I had always wanted to learn to take real photographs, so I signed up for the Black and White Photography course.
I wasn’t an immediate Ansel Adams, but I did learn some standard film processing and darkroom developing skills that I still use and teach to this day. But that is not why that summer was defining. Oh, it was so much more
My roommate that summer was Sarah. Sarah was a local who chose to stay on campus rather than commute. I could not blame her for that choice. Living in a dorm room and making those amazing memories were the best part about going to SYP. Sarah was my exact opposite, personality wise. I was frumpy, wearing only tee-shirts and nylon sports shorts. I was so, so shy; not even saying much to anyone and hiding in the corners of the room. Sarah was colorful and vivacious, front and center as the proverbial entertainer. Sarah was also a SYP veteran. There were two other girls in rooms near ours who were veterans, too. Molly was next door with her high school friend Michelle. Across the hall and a few doors down was Janelle, Sarah’s roommate from the year before.
The very first morning, I followed Sarah to Molly’s room where those other girls were gathering before heading to our first morning session. I had my SLR camera with me. Janelle had one, too.
“Are you in photography, too?” she asked.
She played with her camera a bit, then asked, “Do you know how to open this thing to put in the film?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I think I remember,” I said.
I sat down next to her, and over the next few minutes, we bonded over the fact that we, indeed, did not know how to open the cameras to put in the film. (We learned that morning in class, but I think we both wanted to show how much smarter we were than the rest).
The rest of the week, I spent most of my time with those other four girls. Sometimes Sarah, the social butterfly, would flit to different groups, but I stayed with the other girls. I was comfortable around them. They were all so lively and lovely, I couldn’t believe my incredible good fortune that I was associated with these girls.
They tried so hard to corrupt me and bring me out of my shell. I had a vicious crush on a boy named Kurt, who hung around his friend who wanted to be called Bark (boys!). The first half of the week, Sarah crushed hard on Bark, asking me to talk her up for him. Shy me! Talking to a boy! I did my best, and after the middle of the week when Sarah decided she didn’t like Bark, but Kurt instead, I became bummed. Everyone flocked around Sarah. She was a bubbly delight, and I was a murky wallflower. This didn’t stop Bark from following us around. It wasn’t until the last night, that I realized that Bark wasn’t following us, he was following me.
I stayed close to my friends. At that point, it was a small group of four: me, Janelle, Michelle, and Molly. They were my little safety bubble. They knew I couldn’t stand Bark, and I had only talked to him to help Sarah. Sarah! Who left me picking up her pieces called Bark so she could flit to her next boy.
(I don’t hold anything against Sarah. We ended up both attending Northern and when I saw her at orientation, I hugged her.)
The final night, there was a dance at the ROTC building, which had orange carpet and smelled musty. The DJ was playing music. I remember seeing my brother, who had a broken collarbone that summer, trying to hop slightly to the song “Jump!”.
I also remember seeing Bark trying to make his way to me the entire night. Evasive maneuvers were made. Using my bubble to block while I went to the other side of the room, finding a distant cousin, a counselor, to escort me back to my room. Michelle making my brave and walking back to the dance to face my fears.
Then finally (imagine the music from Jaws swelling at this point), Molly comes over to me from talking to Bark, standing in the distance. She said, “Bark wants to know if you will dance with him.”
I was affronted. Didn’t I just spend the past few days avoiding him? Doesn’t that tell someone that you do NOT want to be in his presence? Whenever I talked to him before it was about Sarah, not me. What did I have to do to get my point across that I found him revolting?
I took a deep breath, looked Bark squarely in the eye, and said loud enough to make sure he could hear me over the music, louder than I had said anything that week, “Tell Bark to go and blow himself.”
Three pairs of eyes widened. Janelle, Molly, and Michelle gasped. They stood there, immobile, as I turned back to them and said, “Ugh! I can’t STAND him.”
If you ask those three girls about that moment, they would all say that was the time they knew they corrupted me. They took sweet, quiet, shy, little (because I was tiny) Amanda and turned her into a fierce, sharp viper. I was a fierce, sharp viper to begin with. I just held that part of me back for so long. It took an annoying boy who wouldn’t get the hint to bring that viper to the foreground.
Saturday morning arrived too quickly. I exchanged addresses and phone numbers with many new friends that week. I knew in my gut that once they returned to their fabulous lives, they would cease communication. That didn’t stop me from heading home, writing letters to a handful of girls. And one boy.
Kurt stayed in touch for a few years after that. He was sweet, admitting on that Saturday morning that he liked me all along, and thought I was a good friend because I focused on Sarah’s happiness over my own. I don’t know where he is right now, but if he does see this, I hope he knows that the feeling I had of that first returned crush has been the foundation for my fictional characters when they, too, have a first crush. (Thanks, Kurt)
I wasn’t too surprised when I heard back from Michelle and Molly within the first week. School and social lives hadn’t started yet. Over the next few months, I would receive a handful of letters from them. They both have admitted since then that they are horrible at correspondence. Janelle’s first letter arrived a few weeks later, which surprised me. I felt that she was kind of a bad girl, too cool for naive me. I wrote back immediately, and was shocked again that within a week or so, I had another letter postmarked from Appleton, Wisconsin.
And so it went. Over the next four years, Janelle and I wrote each other. We would shove notebook paper filled with classes woes, successes, drama, secrets, and the hopes for our hearts into envelopes and send them off. Janelle was my constant friend. When you live hundreds of miles away from each other, you don’t get sucked into petty high school drama. I honestly don’t think we’ve ever fought, and as much as I can recall, we only had one little blip that was resolved within days.
My junior or senior year, I remember her telling me about a love triangle she was in. I don’t even remember who was involved, but I sent one back that wasn’t a triangle, but more like a love square (there were four people involved). In the next letter, she illustrated in great detail what she called her “love molecule”. It was intense. It was how she connected to each person and other people who were involved in the daily dramas of high school. I sent mine back with her. This lasted a few more letters until we grew bored of it all and went to the next big drama.
The Birth of Gretchen Burke’s Love Molecule
A decade later, I came up with the idea for my novel. I was rereading our letters in a dose of nostalgia, thinking of how intense those high school moments were back then and how they were just a dull ache as an adult. I didn’t forget how I felt at the time, or make it feel like it didn’t matter now that I was an adult. Instead, I thought of how my own students went through similar problems and how much they liked hearing about my own high school survival stories.
“Gretchen Burke’s Love Molecule,” I said to the air. I wondered who this Gretchen Burke could be, how she could handle a prom situation that was similar to my own. (Her story is so different from mine!)
I stewed over the title and how I could start this novel.
Then one day in 2009, I sat down at my new MacBook Pro and started typing.