Every story is different; every story is the same.
In first grade I liked two girls: Felicia and Jessie.* I liked Felicia because she was pretty and could run fast. Running fast was important to me, and the idea of Felicia and me running fast together was powerful. I pictured us running through wheat fields and football fields—and beside the sea with wet sand flying up behind us. I didn’t tell Felicia about any of this because I liked her too much.
Jessie wasn’t as pretty or as fast as Felicia; but she was fun, and I could just be myself around her. Once a week Jessie and I walked from Rossman Elementary together, Jessie to her house and me to my grandparents’ house. We talked about recess and our teacher, Mrs. Johnston, and about maybe playing “Captain May I?” later that evening in my grandparents’ front yard.
Grandma had Pop-Tarts and milk waiting for me, and while I ate she asked me all kinds of questions about school and with a sparkle in her eye asked if I had any “little girlfriends.” I told her about Felicia and Jessie and said they weren’t my “girlfriends.” But, you know, they were “girls” and “friends.” We both laughed and decided we would call them “special friends.”
I liked Tricia in second grade. I’d transferred from a large public school with hundreds of kids to a little Adventist church school with only a dozen. Tricia was an older woman: a fourth grader. She had short hair and unusual eyes, and I had no idea what to say to her. The best I could do was to hang out with her third-grade brother Jack, hoping it would somehow pay off.
At Jack’s birthday party we played tackle football in the mud, and the whole time I was aware of his sister, hoping she saw my ferocious play. At the end of the school year I was shocked to hear that Tricia’s family was moving from Minnesota to California. I hadn’t planned on this at all. What were her parents thinking?
The situation called for a desperate measure. The last day of school I won a giant full-color Reagan/Bush election poster in a class drawing. All year I’d dreamed of winning that poster as it hung on the wall beside Jimmy Carter. Reagan looked so cheerful; Carter looked stressed. After school I rolled up the poster and followed Tricia down the hallway. “Hey, Tricia,” I said as she walked down the stairs, “do you want this poster? I don’t really want it.”
Tricia seemed a little surprised, but she smiled politely and took the poster and left. I always wondered if she kept it. I also wondered if she might have been a Democrat.
Other Girls, Other Experiences
In fifth grade I returned to public school because there weren’t any other boys left in church school. Jessie was still there, but she was no longer the cute little girl I’d walked from school with. She’d gotten heavy and had taken her place among the girls the boys didn’t pay attention to. I felt bad for her, but didn’t make an effort to talk with her. I figured she probably didn’t even remember our first grade walks anyway.
Instead, I liked a new girl, Stephanie. Stephanie had wavy blond hair and played flute in band, and a lot of boys liked her, including my best friend Jim, who was class president. I was vice president, which meant that if Jim got shot or his schoolbus arrived late, I had to be ready at a moment’s notice. I couldn’t imagine anyone liking Stephanie as much as I did; I even felt protective when someone said her name.
At recess Stephanie and her friends ran back and forth on the playground with word of who-liked-who, and I always hoped for good news. Then one morning someone had written Stephanie-n-Andy on the chalkboard, and on a field trip later that day Stephanie playfully sang “You Are My Sunshine” to me. I pretended to hate it, but I secretly liked it. Fifth grade was the greatest year ever, and school days were light and innocent.
Then in sixth grade one of the boys, Scott, began trying to kiss Stephanie. He’d rush up and grab her, and she’d scream “Get away! You’re so disgusting!” I felt a conflict of emotions. On one hand, I thought it was funny because Scott was such a crazy guy and I couldn’t believe he would do that. But I also noticed how angry Stephanie got. Her demeanor completely changed; it was the only time she stopped smiling. Part of me felt like standing up for her and telling Scott to back off, but I didn’t. I just laughed along with the other boys.
I liked Kelly in seventh grade, my first year of junior high. Kelly was a different type of girl than I’d ever liked before. We sat in the back of Mr. Bowman’s math class, and Kelly gave me an education. She showed me “pop tops” (the tabs from soda cans) she was collecting because she liked Jeff. She explained that one pop top meant a kiss. Twenty pop tops meant a “home run.” I was startled to hear a girl talk like this so casually. I felt like I’d entered a strange new world, and it was difficult to concentrate on Mr. Bowman.
Kelly had a little book called Ask Beth, which answered questions I’d never even thought of asking. I began to get the feeling that I was way behind everyone else. My classmates started having parties in their basements. I went along but felt overwhelmed by all the drama—especially the world’s most frightening game, Truth or Dare—and I found myself missing the simpler days on the playground.
Then at the end of eighth grade, I had a party too, at the suggestion of friends who noticed we had a nice basement. I invited Kelly but the day before I overheard her and a break-dancer named Mike talking about “Andy’s Kool-Aid party,” which made me feel stupid. We weren’t having Kool-Aid! We were having pop and pizza and watching Karate Kid, which I didn’t think was so bad.
A quiet girl named Carrie came to my party, and that summer we started calling each other. When my parents said Carrie was on the phone, I went way back in the corner of my bedroom so absolutely no one could hear me, especially my younger sister, Angel, who couldn’t be trusted. Often there wasn’t much to hear. Our conversations had long gaps of total silence, and I’d sit there thinking, I can’t believe no one is saying anything.
Carrie and I played racquetball and went to a James Bond movie, and by the start of ninth grade we were even “going together” for a few weeks until one day she told me she just wanted to be friends. This didn’t really surprise me because I was having a tough time just being myself. Beneath the surface I was still a sensitive Christian kid, and it wasn’t easy attending a raucous public school. I felt like two different people and found myself retreating deeper and deeper into my shell.
Those Awkward Years
In tenth grade my family moved to Orlando, Florida, and enrolled me at Forest Lake Academy. Initially I was very reserved. When a nice girl named Debbie starting coming to visit me at my job in the typing department, the conversation would typically falter. Everything I said sounded idiotic. Then I came up with an idea. I made a list of interesting topics and placed it on my desk just out of Debbie’s view. Whenever a conversation started to fade, I’d just simply refer to the list and choose a topic that looked good: (1) Had a biology test this morning. (2) Kenny G coming to Orlando next month. (3) It’s hot today. (4) How are you?
One afternoon as we were talking, I got called to the computer lab for something. When I got back, Debbie was gone. That night I got a call from one of Debbie’s friends who happened to be dating one of my friends, John. She said, “Hey, Andy, I just wanted to get your advice on something. Sometimes with John I don’t know what to say. Do you think I should make a list?” I hung up, totally humiliated.
By the end of the year I began emerging from my shell. I was making more and more friends and I loved being in a Christian school. Going to spiritual programs instead of parties was a huge relief. Over the next two years I got elected to student association, played first-chair sax in band, and went on two mission trips to Mexico and Honduras.
I dated several girls, including Filipino and Spanish girls, which we didn’t have in Minnesota. I didn’t date as much as my friends did, but they barely had time for guy stuff and most of their relationships didn’t last beyond graduation anyway. I finished high school with good memories and figured that I’d find the perfect girl for me in college.
But four years later, I hadn’t yet found the perfect girl. All through college at Southern Adventist University I watched my friends drop like dominoes while I waited patiently in the draw pile. With plenty of free time, I focused on school, grew closer to God, and volunteered a year as a student missionary in Thailand.
Returning to Southern for my junior year I double-downed in my effort to find the right girl. But whenever I dated someone, either I was trying to talk myself into it, or worse, she was. The closest I got to even hearing about the “right girl” for me was a phone call from a friend in Texas named Bernie, who I’d met in Hawaii for student missionary training. Bernie said he’d found the “totally perfect girl” for me: someone named Cindy at Southwestern Adventist University. “That’s great,” I told Bernie, “but I’m in Tennessee, remember?”
After Christmas break my senior year, I returned to campus for my final semester. I was swamped with a double-major and two jobs as student dean and student newspaper editor. I really didn’t have time for anything else and had written off meeting the right girl at Southern. At my first meal back, I walked into the cafeteria and looked for someone to sit with. I saw a friend, Eric, sitting with his girlfriend, Heidi, and some other people. As I took a seat, Heidi said, “Hey, Andy, do you know my sister, Cindy? She used to go to Southwestern.” Heidi motioned to the girl sitting next to me.
I turned my head and found myself looking into the eyes of the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life.
“Oh, hi,” I managed to say.
“Hey,” she said, smiling.
As I shook her hand, I began processing something: Cindy from Southwestern?
I leaned in. “By any chance,” I said, “do you know anyone named Bernie?”
She tilted her head. “Yeah . . .” she said. “Do you?”
We shared a look of strange recognition. Bernie had told me about Cindy, and Cindy about me.
Bernie’s prophecy would prove true. Cindy was the girl I’d always dreamed of: beautiful, spiritual, fun, smart, sensitive, perfect. Even more important, Cindy was the girl God had dreamed of . . . for me. Suddenly everything made sense, and for the first time I understood how it felt to be in love. I couldn’t believe how happy I was. I just couldn’t believe it.
Cindy and I were engaged by Thanksgiving. We married the following June. Eight years later we returned to live in Tennessee with our three daughters, Ally, Morgan, and Summer. Now and then we even eat in the same cafeteria. Cindy becomes more and more beautiful to me every year, and I love her with all my heart.
The Joy Set Before You
Every now and then I wonder: What if I had missed out on Cindy? What if I had settled for another relationship that wasn’t there? What if I’d forfeited other life experiences—such as being a student missionary—because I was too focused on finding “the one”?
Cindy and I both offer the same advice to young people excited about meeting their true love someday.
1. Act the way you’re supposed to act at each stage of life and love. In other words, if you’re dating in high school, act like you’re in high school. Don’t act like you’re on the verge of becoming engaged. Keep things light, fun, and appropriate to your stage of life. Married people never wish they’d gotten more involved in their past dating relationships; they only wish they’d gotten less involved. God gives us great freedom in our relationships, as He does in life. But when we make decisions at odds with His principles and His timing, we can short-circuit His grand plans for us. I think of the fifty-something man who kept shaking his head and repeating the words: “Look what that 18-year-old kid did to me. Look what that 18-year-old kid did to me.” He was talking about himself. The choices he’d made as an 18-year-old still plague him decades later.
2. Practice treating the opposite sex with respect. No matter your age, one of the best ways to establish good patterns in your future relationships is to treat the girls and guys in your life like your sisters and brothers. (Actually, you might want to treat them better than your sisters and brothers.) I wish I’d stood up for Stephanie when she looked so distressed, somehow grasping the protectiveness I now feel as a father of three daughters. What good is a good heart unless you’re willing to express it? By treating the girls and guys in your life not as objects, but as daughters and sons of God, you will change your world.
3. Listen to the counsel of wise friends and family. This won’t always be easy. When we like someone—and we’re attracted to them—it’s not fun to have others tell us this person isn’t right for us. What do they know? But step back a second and ask yourself: Do you trust the judgment of your close friends and family? Are they usually right when assessing the relationships of others? If so, are they probably right about you?
4. Remember that you’re marrying your children’s parent. If you have children someday, for most of your marriage you will view your spouse not as that giggly girl or guy you dated, but as the father or mother of your children. You’ll even start calling your spouse Dad or Mom. (“Ask Dad to help you with your homework.” “Tell Mom we’re ready to leave.”) You may forget your spouse’s name altogether! No, not really. But in your dating years, as you sit eating ice cream and gazing into each other’s eyes, ask yourself: Is this the person you want taking your kids out for ice cream someday? Even more important, is this the person you want taking your kids to church?
5. Be loyal to the person you’ll marry someday. What does that mean: That you shouldn’t date anyone as you grow up? No, of course not. It’s healthy and good to socialize in your youth. But when you take a wider perspective—recognizing that the person you’re going to marry is probably someone you haven’t yet met—you’ll find yourself more relaxed, more careful, with those in your life right now. (Remember, they too will be someone else’s spouses someday.)
Solomon wrote, “Place me like a seal over your heart” (Song of Songs 8:6). Someday your spouse will be a seal over your heart. But right now, there should only be one seal over your heart: Jesus Christ. He knows the end from the beginning. He’s guiding your steps, and those of your future spouse. And at the right time, he’ll bring your paths together.
*Some names have been changed.
Andy Nash lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Cindy and their three daughters. He’s the author of The Book of Matthew: Save Us Now, Son of David.