By Taleen Mardirossian
In 7th grade, Jason Miller asked me to be his girlfriend. The bell rang during our game of two on two so we returned the basketball to Coach N and started walking to 5th period when he grabbed my hand and completely blindsided me, “Wanna be my girlfriend?”
At the age of twelve, I didn’t know that having a significant other was even a thing. Sure, Jason and I had a lot in common; we both loved skateboarding, were fans of Sugar Ray, and reveled at Jason Kapono but that’s why we were friends. In all honesty, I was more prepared for a 9.6 magnitude earthquake than Jason Miller’s suave proposal. At least then I would know to drop, cover, and hold but no one had given me a step-by-step guide on how to reject a prospective suitor. To be fair though, my mom had kind of, sort of, not really warned me that this would happen.
“Boys are going to like you,” she would tell me, “but no matter what they say or ask, you always answer no.”
“Even if I like them?”
“Especially if you like them.”
“Mom, that makes no sense.”
“You want to know a secret?”
Of course I wanted to know a secret. Asking a girl if she wants to know a secret is like asking a sweet tooth if it wants sugar.
“Here’s how you pick the right boy.” Now she had my attention. “If you tell him no and he moves on to another girl, he doesn’t deserve you. But if he fights for you, then that means he loves you and only you.”
I must say mom was on point, but this didn’t become my dating mantra until years after that day in 7th grade. Had I listened to my mom when Jason Miller asked me out, I would have simply said no and walked away. But what I did in that moment had nothing to do with my mom and everything to do with my dad.
My dad and I never had a conversation about boys. He was your traditional Armenian dad; protective to a fault and untrusting of every human being I ever came in contact with. However, he was more modern in his thinking then he’ll ever realize.
During that year that Jason Miller asked me out, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the show ER. I’d be up before the sun watching back-to-back episodes while my dad drank his coffee and read Asbarez. One morning, as I watched George Clooney charmingly hand out miracles to his patients, I confessed my change of heart.
“Dad, I think I’d rather be a surgeon than a lawyer.”
“Who said we can’t be both?”
In our conversations, my dad always used (and still uses) the word we; never you or I, but always we. We would figure things out, we would go to law school, we would become president one day, if that’s what I wanted, and although I was aware that these were all things I would have to do on my own, I always knew that we were in it together. And if I was going to have anyone on my team, I was glad it was my dad.
He’s the charismatic type, the what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong kind of guy who speaks his mind even if he knows he’s going to offend the person sitting right next to him. I admired him and was always in awe of his strong character, never phased by anything or anyone.
Despite his intimidatingly perfect mustache and resilient nature, this hardy man would smother me with kisses, whisper I love you in my ear when I pretended to be asleep, and spend hours at a time just talking to me. According to him, I was the best at everything I ever did. He oohed and aahed at my every move and if I knew anything growing up, it was that I was the smartest, most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He taught me my worth and made me believe that I was invincible, capable of anything and deserving of everything.
And heaven forbid, if anyone were to ever lay a finger on me, or make me feel uncomfortable, my father encouraged me to recollect my savored scenes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and similarly, strike at the antihero.
And so when Jason Miller made me feel uncomfortable that one day in 7th grade, I instinctively slapped him. In hindsight, Jason was hardly an aggressor, nor a villain, but my twelve-year-old self was naïve and unnerved nonetheless. His blue eyes froze, as did the gel-soaked spikes in his hair. With my luck, the principal happened to be standing only a few feet away, bearing witness to my “socially unacceptable behavior” and immediately demanded an apology.
“I didn’t do anything wrong so I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” I shot back, my voice trembling with fear.
This was another lesson I had learned from my dad, never apologize for the sake of apologizing. And so I stood there with my arms crossed, hearing the gasps and whispers of the girls huddled around us. She doesn’t want to be Jason’s girlfriend?
As Jason disappeared into the crowd of students, I took my first walk of shame to the principal’s office. My heart was beating out of my chest as I felt my cheeks turning red. Good students weren’t supposed to be in the principal’s office and I couldn’t help but feel like this was the end of my life.
“You shouldn’t have slapped Jason,” he stated assertively.
“And he shouldn’t have grabbed my hand and asked me to be his girlfriend,” said my timid but attitude-filled voice.
“You should be flattered that a boy likes you.”
At this point, I felt like I was under attack. I had been taught to be ladylike and I was pretty sure slapping someone was far from it. And Armenians are all about respecting their elders and I was also smart enough to know that answering back wasn’t a form of respect. So I was beginning to question whether I was the one at fault.
“Listen, you’re either going to walk into class and apologize to Jason or I’m going to call your parents.”
Looking back now, my principal must have thought that this choice would be a no brainer and it was. After all, isn’t that the ultimate threat? What kid wants the principal calling their parent? But my immediate response caught him off guard.
I may have been on the verge of hyperventilating but there was no way in hell I was giving a public apology for something I wasn’t sorry for. After all, if I was in trouble, we were in trouble.
He walked me out and told me to take a seat in the secretary’s office while he made the call to my dad. I never found out what was said during this conversation but he came out minutes later and told me I was free to go back to class. Just like that. And I remember grinning from ear to ear because this meant that all those times my dad had said we, he had meant it.
For me, that day was less about Jason Miller and more about my relationship with my dad. It was my dad’s influence that kicked in when I panicked and it was my dad’s love and support that gave me the courage to do what I thought was right. Where other parents may have scolded or punished their child for not obeying an authoritative figure, my dad carried me on his shoulders and paraded me around the house as though I had just won an Olympic gold medal. That day marked the beginning of a series of life decisions that were made solely on what I felt and believed was right, never taking into account what others might think or say.
I have since realized that without a doubt, it was my mom who built the foundation of my very being but it was my dad who built me up from there. Where I could have easily become lost in the loud voices of the bold, patriarchal men of my family, simply fading into background noise, my dad raised me to become a woman whose voice was just as loud, if not louder, than his.