Last Friday, I did one of the most courageous things I’ve ever done. I got in my car and drove from Tennessee to Kentucky to see people I hadn’t seen in forty years. I was absolutely terrified. My hands were shaking on the steering wheel. Every moment during that drive, I considered chickening out. I wanted to chicken out.
I had known this would happen, had known I would look for any excuse to back away. So I cleverly made it harder on myself by promising to contribute cookies and breakfast casserole and chai to the reunion. (I genuinely wanted to help out, but I’m being very honest when I tell you that it was also a sort of insurance policy. It’s one thing to let myself down, but I am very unlikely to let anyone else down if I can avoid it.)
When I reached the ranch where the reunion was held, I drove right past the entrance. I thought maybe I would just drive all the way into town and buy the groceries I needed, and then go back and face my classmates.
I got a few miles down the road before getting a grip. I turned around and went back to the ranch gate, and this time I went in. I drove all the way to the lodge and parked my car. I got out and walked into the building, believing in my heart of hearts that I was walking into extreme emotional danger.
As I stood palpitating inside the door, looking into a room filled with my former classmates, my friend Sally came forward to greet me. She was soon followed by others, and my fear began to drain away. It was replaced by incredulous joy at getting to be with this particular group of people for the first time in forty years. I had a wonderful time for the rest of the weekend.
This, of course, does not answer the question I know many of you have, which is: Why on earth was I so terrified? What was I afraid of?
I would really love to not answer those questions. I hate exposing the real me to the entire internet, and I rarely do it—but it has occurred to me that somewhere, sometime, someone might benefit from knowing what went on inside me on this specific occasion.
First, though, I have to explain a thing or two about being an MK (missionary kid) and going to boarding school. It’s not like “normal” life here in the US. Your classmates are your only social group. They’re the people you draw your friends from, go to church with, play games with, study with, and socialize with (and if you’re like me, they’re also the people you get in trouble with and get punished with). They live in your dorm with you, eat all your meals with you, and of course also go to classes with you. In short, they quite quickly become your adopted family.
Because of this, friendships tend to be deep and long-lasting. Remember, I also went to boarding school for elementary school, and am still close to many of my friends from those years.
This reunion, however, was a reunion of my high school class. I went to Rift Valley Academy (RVA) for my junior year and half of my senior year. It was a very intense time for me, coming on the heels of eighteen months when I had studied at home in almost total isolation. I wanted to be friends with everybody in the world. (I know. I’m an introvert. But even for me, there is such a thing as too much solitude.)
I do not wish to discuss my experience at that school. It was deeply colored by pain, anguish, and betrayal. There are good reasons I have not written a second memoir detailing my experiences there. However, at the same time I was experiencing so much misery, my life was also filled with joy and delight at being around people again and having the opportunity to make new friends. I threw myself into relationships with an enthusiasm that I have not matched since. I made some mistakes. I was, after all, a teenager whose head was full of immaturity and stupidity. Still, I loved my friends with an intensity born from my months of extreme loneliness.
So why did I then avoid them for the next forty years? My excuses were legion, and some of them were lies I told myself. For the first decade or two, I honestly thought I could not emotionally survive the experience of seeing my high school friends again, and it was very helpful that I also could not afford to attend any of those early reunions. It’s not that I didn’t want to see my friends. I desperately wanted to see them and connect with them again—but I was afraid all the wrong memories would come back and I’d be a quivering basket case after the first few hours. I feared that I’d be asked questions I didn’t want to answer, or that people would judge me unfairly, not knowing the reasons behind some of the things I did. In short, I was a coward.
I wish I could say that was the worst of it, but it wasn’t. There was a much bigger sin that came into play as the years went by, compounding my cowardice—and that was the sin of pride. I did not want my classmates to know how fat I was, how very mediocre in my achievements. I thought the day would come when I’d look svelte and glamorous and be a bestselling author, and then I’d turn up at a reunion and not be ashamed of myself. It never occurred to me that I was judging myself much more harshly than my friends do.
For four decades—forty freaking years!—I let fear, stupidity, and pride keep me from staying connected with people I cared deeply about. I had opportunities from time to time to meet up with one or more of them, and I wriggled out. If I had not been such a spineless coward, I daresay I could have figured out a way to attend at least one reunion before now.
So what happened when I gathered up every last molecule of courage I still possess and walked into that group of people? Instead of finding myself in danger, I found myself in a place of safety; a sensation that is very rare for me. My classmates shared details of their lives with the rest of us, knowing that they’d be met with acceptance and encouragement. I did not see a single instance of someone being judged, as I had always feared I would be. Believe it or not, not one person came up to me and said, “Boy, are you a big fat disappointment.” Everyone just seemed glad that I was there. There are parts of my life that I do not share here or with any of my local friends, but I felt quite sure I could have shared them with that group had I wanted to. We all shared some experiences that tend to make us empathetic and compassionate toward each other.
I had feared that going to the reunion, seeing all those people again, would be like knowingly drinking a glass of deadly poison. Maybe it would have been—35 years ago, but I doubt it. After forty long years, I found that the misery and bitterness of the past had evaporated away, leaving only the sweet clear wine of joy.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is what so many others have said in different ways and about different things: don’t wait. Don’t wait till you look skinny and fabulous before you let someone take your picture. Don’t wait till you have achieved some cherished goal before you reunite with old friends who just want to enjoy your company. And most of all, when you do meet up with old friends, be a safe place for them. All they really need from you is your love and acceptance—and your presence.