My senior year English teacher once stopped class to give a bunch of hopeless teenagers a lesson on love.
“Get out a piece of paper,” she said sternly, her usual intricate gray bun sitting imperiously atop her head. Her hair – as she told us – reached below her knees when she loosened it out of its bun. She never cut her hair after high school, save for a few trims, as was the Native American tradition her Pawnee grandfather had taught her. Dr. Lara was by far one of the most interesting teachers I ever had in my educational career (which is saying something, since my 50-year-old communication applications teacher once had a screaming fight with her boyfriend in the middle class over the phone). (Also I had an English teacher claim that Julius Caesar was essentially Jesus Christ because they both had the initials “J.C.” But that’s beside the point.)
“Get out a piece of paper,” she commanded, “and write down three things you look for in a romantic partner.”
I blanked for a second. What do I even look for in a person? I realized I never looked for specific traits, I was either attracted to someone or not. I never really thought about why.
…Intelligence, I wrote down. Kindness. I couldn’t think of a third. I could think of a lot of qualities, but none that I considered an Ultimate Character Trait.
“Next, write down three things that you would never want in a romantic partner. Three deal-breakers.”
Violent/brutal. I paused for a bit. Ignorant. Untrustworthy.
“Now, move your desks in a circle.” And then there was the usual cacophony of chairs scraping against carpet and backpacks shuffled about and pencils rolling off desks.
“Alright, Ms. Shankar,” (She never called us by our first names.) “Tell us what three things you look for in a romantic partner.”
Rayna (aka Ms. Shankar) smiled confidently – always the extrovert and always fiercely unembarrassed by any situation.
“I said, funny, smart, and fine af.”
There was a ripple of small smiles around the room.
“Most young people – teens and preteens – look for physical beauty in a significant other,” Dr. Bissett spoke carefully, “but in doing so, you can be limiting yourself from several compatible romantic partners. Additionally, as you fall in love with someone, everything associated with them – their appearance, their personality, their passions – these all become beautiful to you. So I wouldn’t worry about physical attraction as a top priority in looking for a relationship.”
“However, I do agree with your first two criteria. It is easy to share your life with someone who won’t bore you, who has the mental capacity to understand your complexities. And it is even easier to share your life with someone who has your sense of humor, who can make you laugh.”
I looked down at my piece of paper. Of course. That would complete my trifecta of Mr. Perfect’s character traits. I wrote down “sense of humor” next to “intelligence” and “kindness.”
It’s been about a year since that spring day when we were all just struggling through another class period, counting down the days until graduation. I didn’t realize then how keeping in mind a three-point criterion for a date would help my love life. But I think I get the purpose of it now. It’s helped me avoid chasing after the wrong guys or chasing after romantic notions of “this guy isn’t exactly Mr. Right, but I can change him!!” It’s helped me avoid wasting my time on kindling relationships that I know won’t work out. It’s put something concrete and objective to a very abstract, subjective thing – love. And at least for now, the organization helps. Because the rom coms, the chick flicks, and the Romeo/Juliets hardly prepared me for the reality of romance. This did.
I’ve modified my list a bit. It’s now “intelligence,” “humor,” and “compassion,” because not only do I want my S/O to be a nice person, I want him or her to be a person who cares deeply about humanity and the world.
And here’s my two cents of experience. I’ve found guys who are tear-inducingly hilarious. I’ve found guys who are arousingly smart. (Intelligence is the new sexy after all.) But I have yet to find someone truly and genuinely compassionate from the micro level of caring for a baby brother to the macro level of worldwide politics. At least, it doesn’t show itself often.
So why is this? Why isn’t a passion for kindness something that we promote in our outer personalities, something that shines out of us radiantly? Boys will make stupid jokes to catch a girl’s attention (their version of humor). Boys will show off their sharp wit and acute cleverness by cracking more stupid jokes and occasionally answering a question correctly in class (their version of intelligence). But, from my experience, few boys will go out of their way to perform a random act of kindness or stand up for someone against their friends or rail against the evils of homophobia or even simply offer their jackets when it’s cold to impress a girl. What is it about fiercely, bravely, and confidently being nice that is so scary? What is it about compassion that is so damn hard?
But I suppose it’s unfair to blame it on the male population. Looking at it all on a grander scale, the world isn’t totally short of funny people or smart people. The rarest element of all is compassion. I know my special someone will be special, because he will be compassionate. And if it took one day in a 12th grade English class to learn that, then hey, maybe my entire grade school education wasn’t a waste.