Retirement, with lots of time to sit and stare and think, is a good time to reflect back on things we’ve always assumed were a certain way… until we have reason to suspect that maybe they weren’t.
I attended my 55th high school reunion recently. Throughout high school, my life centered around a group of friends – boys and girls – who hung out on weekends at one girl’s house. We were all close friends, and our activities were pretty tame: eating chips, drinking sodas, and listening to Ray Charles, Peter Paul & Mary, and Diana Ross. And lots of heavy discussions about life. Some of us drank in high school, but never at this girl’s house. Her mom made sure of that.
The two core members of this gang were the girl who lived there, and a guy who lived down the street from her. They’d been close friends their whole life. He died 10 years ago, and she died just a few weeks ago.
At the recent reunion, I had two unsettling conversations about these two close friends.
The guy was the very bright student council president, known for his sharp, sarcastic wit. We had all been the object of his sarcasm countless times. His sarcastic wit didn’t bother us, and we assumed it didn’t bother others.
An example. Someone enters a room in which he and a group of people are chatting away. He stops talking, looks at the person who just walked in, turns back to the group and says, “Quiet, here he is!” Is that funny… or cruel? I always thought it was funny, even when I was the target.
We understood this kind of humor because we all did the same thing. But what about a new, shy kid who walked into the room, and heard, “Quiet. Here he is.” Back then, I never wondered about that kid.
At the reunion, I was paging through the countless high school pictures. One classmate, whom I did not know well, pointed to a picture of this guy. “God, he was mean!” she said. “He always called me a name I didn’t like. Every time he saw me in the halls, he’d laugh and call me that name! I tell you, when he died a few years ago, I wasn’t at all sad.”
Whoa. There was a lot of anger in those words, a lot of hurt. Enough to last 55 years.
The second conversation was with a classmate who is a close friend of mine, but who wasn’t part of this particular group. This conversation was about the girl at whose house we hung out.
You need to understand that she was an outgoing girl with a big heart. She had lots of friends, both boys and girls, but to my knowledge she never had a boyfriend in high school. She did have this very close group of friends who hung out at her house. She was important to us, and I always thought we were important to her.
At the reunion, my good friend asked me if I ever thought that our group had taken advantage of this girl, and ultimately treated her in a hurtful manner. Coincidentally, I had recently wondered the same thing myself.
The fact is, when guys in the gang had dates on a Friday or Saturday night, we’d take our dates home, and then come by this girl’s house. We’d hang out, drink sodas, listen to music, and talk about everything, including our dates. We assumed that she enjoyed everyone hanging out there, eating her parents’ food, and hearing about our dates.
What were we thinking???
Looking at that scenario today, I can think of nothing more insensitive than the way we – especially the guys – treated our very close, very important friend.
She never married. She had a successful career as an elementary school teacher, and retired comfortably many years ago. I kept in touch with her through e-mail and Facebook, and saw her every few years in St. Louis and at reunions. Her high school friends still in St. Louis kept in close touch with her. Our high school group friendships have been maintained over the years.
High school years can be torturous, especially for kids who are in some way different. We’ve always known that; it will probably always be the case. When I was 12, my 19-year-old brother warned me that I’d soon go through an awkward, pimple-ridden phase called adolescence. I’m still waiting for that phase.
Thanks to friends like these two, and many others who were part of the gang, my high school memories are mainly happy ones. But now I’m wondering if, due to my teenaged lack of sensitivity, I was not as good a friend as I could have been to this girl and others.
Sadly, it’s too late to have this conversation with her. Except… she was one of the first subscribers to this blog. Maybe she gets free wi-fi.