catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 23 :: 2009.11.27 — 2009.12.10


Growing up is hard to do

I remember hanging out with Renee during recess in first grade, where first graders weren’t supposed to be: between Mike’s garage and the neighbor’s fence, technically not school property.  She was from the mysterious world known as The Other First Grade Class.  That illicit little nook, cozy in the fall sunshine, was a pair of warm hands cupped gently around our friendship like a baby bird.

I also remember occupying the coveted shade beneath the glare of the hot metal triangle slide with Mandy.  Smelling like pea gravel and sweaty hair, we declared ourselves closer than friends, or sisters, even: cousins!  We made sacred promises within the sanctuary of that three-sided shadow.

But Renee immigrated to an even stranger world called Public School.  And Mandy and I simply drifted apart; even voluntary kinship couldn’t bind us together for life.  Both divergences were innocent and relatively painless, leaving me with only the sweet exposition of the story, and so it wasn’t until Lindsay, in fourth grade, that I came to associate friendship with conflict, power dynamics and competition.

Lindsay and I had plenty of good times together — watching her New Kids on the Block VHS tape over and over again, for example — but the siren song of coolness was beginning to drown everything else out, and we were being set up for another kind of story, a darker one known as Lady of the Flies, or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love My Ego.  Self-consciousness was a gateway drug leading to the more potent high of self-centeredness.  Through much of fifth grade and junior high, we girls devoured anyone who wasn’t part of our shifting alliances.

Whenever I hear people refer to best friends they’ve had since kindergarten, I hear the wind whistling through a vast empty space in my story.  A string of best friends during my early childhood left me with symbols - at least a couple of half-heart "Be Fri-" necklaces and dozens of intricately folded notes in loopy penmanship — but not with the real thing.  I suppose I was fortunate to always have someone to play tag with, and later to stand together pensively around the edges of the basketball court, but sometimes I wish I could have just learned how to be alone well.  I wish I could have stood around the edges of the petty dramas that played themselves out every day, in which I was hurt and hurt others for such pathetically small reasons.  I wish I could have found refuge in a book, tucked in next to the stability of my favorite tree on the playground, instead of grasping so anxiously for acceptance and status. 

But, as I saw them do with other peers, I suppose the powerful forces of socialization would have tried to destroy such a weak link.  The way I see it, I was “properly” socialized by my peers and my own ego at the expense of lasting relationships, identity and the ability to trust.  No Jonathan and David, or Anne and Diana for me in junior high — just frenemies, really.  I was a mean girl, if not always on the outside, in my heart.

Without the ability to time travel, I’m simply left with regrets and questions.  How could I have been a teenager who was humanizing, even as I tried to discover what it meant to be fully human?  How could I have been more kind, and kept a soft heart?  Even though such hearts are more easily hurt, they are also more easily swelled with compassion.  I wish I could have learned earlier than I did that social outcasts generally make interesting friends, that commitment is difficult but worthwhile, that it’s okay to enjoy my family and spend time alone doing things I love.

I ran into Renee many years after our friendship was cut short.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I saw a spark of recognition in her eyes that mirrored my own — a remembrance of a brief, platonic romance that still colored our best expectations for how something or someone beyond our human understanding could knit two hearts together.  Without the calluses of pretense we’d develop from so much social friction in the coming years, we had existed for a brief moment in all of our light and shadows.  Was this a glimpse of what it means to come to the Divine as though a child?  When I consider my first grade self, I like to think so.  And it makes me so much more grateful that Jesus called us friends.

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