Our elementary school was set deep in the rural Ontario countryside, nestled in the forest beside the local dump. In the late 1990s, when I was in sixth grade, the school had a drug bust in which more than 20 kids were suspended and charged with possession of marijuana, magic mushrooms and ecstasy. I was not one of those kids.
I was a shy, self-conscious, straight-A student who had never been in anything resembling trouble. At recess, a year later, I didn’t make the choice to get into trouble that day, either. My fearless, if inconsiderate, friend Ashley did that for us both.
She had been invited to smoke cigarettes in the trees on the far side of the running track. The invitation came from Kyle, a charming ringleader who looked like Justin Timberlake and dressed like Kurt Cobain. He was effortlessly the coolest boy in school. Kyle had also been one of the drug-bust kids, but somehow teachers still loved him. His cool factor worked on them, too.
Ashley was stoked but didn’t want to show up alone. So she recruited me — a loyal follower — without letting me in on the full plan. She was right to lie. I would have certainly wussed out if she had told me we were going to smoke (!) on school property (!) with Kyle (?!). Insanity.
Recess came. Ashley and I made our way across the track, toward the forest. We heard a voice calling out to us and quickly ducked into the trees.
We found Kyle leaning against a tree, lighting a cigarette. Beside him was another boy — Jimmy — a rough kid from a poor family who had recently been embraced by the cool crowd, if momentarily. He had also been part of the drug bust, but teachers didn’t afford him the same grace that they did Kyle.
I knew Jimmy because he was on my bus, not that we had much of a relationship. I’d mostly seen him launch spitballs and gladly punch whoever was willing to fight back. We awkwardly greeted each other, and I tried to hide the heart attack I was having at the whole situation.
Kyle offered us a cigarette. Without a moment’s hesitation, Ashley took it and casually inhaled. This was her first cigarette, too, but she was built for moments like this.
She passed it to me. I tried to steady my shaking hand. Kyle winked at me, saying: “Just try it. Maybe you’ll like it.”
I took the world’s tiniest puff. Not bad, I thought. Then I got cocky and took a real drag. It was like I had sucked an entire smoke bomb into my mouth through a straw. Immediately, I succumbed to a cartoonish coughing fit.
They all laughed, and my embarrassment was interrupted by a worse horror: The teacher monitoring recess had spotted us in the trees and was yelling for us to come out.
The boys took off in one direction and Ashley pulled me in another. We ran as fast as we could, clear around the building, into the school’s back entrance and down the hallway into the girls’ washroom.
I frantically tried to wash the cigarette stench off my hands, positive I reeked of smoke and guilt. Ashley was ecstatic: “Wasn’t that awesome?”
We went back to class … and nothing happened. Just as I allowed myself to think we had gotten away with it and started wondering why I haven’t done more bad things, the school PA system came on. All four of us were called to the principal’s office.
I had my second heart attack and resolved never to speak to Ashley again. As the four of us made our way down the hall, Jimmy looked at me coldly. “Don’t tell them nothing,” he said.
At the office, we were separated.
“What were you doing in the trees?” the vice principal asked me.
Terrified, I answered, “Nothing!”
Waiting to hear what the punishment would be, I contemplated throwing everyone else under the bus. But then the principal ducked her head into the room and told me I could go. Why? Because Kyle had taken the fall. He said he had called us into the trees — it was all his fault — and so the rest of us were free to go.
Thankfully, they hadn’t figured out that we had been smoking on school property, just that we were hanging out where we weren’t supposed to be. So Kyle wasn’t suspended. His punishment was to miss the next day’s dance.
Our school dances took place every few months during the school day and featured a mix of requests and songs that were clearly the favorites of the D.J., a substitute teacher, Mr. Grant. “Cotton Eye Joe” would segue into the “Macarena,” followed by “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then it was time for my favorite part, the “snowball” slow dance, during which we were supposed to switch partners every 30 seconds.
Before the dance, I would write in my diary a list of at least 10 boys I wanted to dance with during the snowball. The next day, I would meticulously recap each boy I had danced with and use that as crush fuel until the next time. The fact that none of these boys reciprocated my feelings was entirely irrelevant.
For this year’s slow dance, Bon Jovi’s “Always,” a six-minute power ballad, was blasting out of the speakers. Ashley ignored the change-partners rule and stayed with Jimmy for the whole song. I think it might have been the happiest six minutes of his life.
The only person I wanted to slow-dance with wasn’t there. I went by the office and waved to Kyle from the hall as “Always” echoed from the gym. He winked and waved back.
After that, I went back to being a rule follower. Ashley dated Jimmy for a while, before dumping him for another boy, also named Jimmy. After eighth grade, the original Jimmy dropped out, and neither of us saw him again.
Kyle continued to date the prettiest girls in school. He became the frontman of a local rock band. At 18, he died in a car accident when his girlfriend lost control of her S.U.V. on a winter night.
I don’t know why Kyle took the fall for us. Maybe he thought he had the least to lose — which strikes me now as a horrible irony. But I’ve come to realize he was a very rare combination of cool and kind, someone who thought everyone deserved to be as popular as he was.
I never smoked another cigarette, but I’ve broken my share of rules since then. In those moments I often think of Kyle’s gentle push to a shy girl who needed one: “Just try it. Maybe you’ll like it.”
Karen Kicak is a television writer and filmmaker. She was the co-showrunner, executive producer and writer on the Netflix comedy “Workin’ Moms.”