By Kay Etheredge
This is really not my story, although I feel like I’m a part of it. I graduated in 1975, a year after my older brother, but going through school with an older brother who was in the grade above me means we shared a lot of common friends. And sometimes the stories that others tell us are the most moving.
Every school has the people who are “in”…these generally are the football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming queens. And sadly, every school, especially middle schools and high schools, also have the people who are “out”. I was in the band, and I spent a lot of time simply trying to steer in my own lane. I wouldn’t have even understood at the time what I was doing, but I tried to steer in the lane that was sub consciously called “status quo”. Don’t do anything to look different, be different, sound different…just stare straight ahead and keep moving.
My brother recently had his 45th high school reunion. I saw photos on social media and wondered who all these old people were. It was startling to realize as I stared intently at the group photo, trying to find one face that I recognized, that old age has definitely arrived. My brother called and relayed different people who had asked about me or said to say hello. We talked about who was there and who wasn’t. And then he mentioned her name.
I won’t put it in print because it is a name that anyone who went to our high school within a 3 year span would know. And it had the misfortune to be a name that could easily be mispronounced as profanity, or rhymed with another word that was also profane. And this girl was definitely not “in”, except that she was the favorite for people, male and female, to taunt, ridicule, and bully. She was a bit slow mentally and she dressed in high school in the seventies just like my grandmother. Long skirts when mini- skirts were the norm. Cats eye glasses when wire granny glasses were the style. She had permed hair when almost every other girl (myself included) wore waist length hair, parted in the middle, and we either ironed or rolled on giant rollers to insure that not one single wave would survive. It was the era of Woodstock and hippies and apparently no self-respecting hippie tolerated curls. She talked with a deeper voice than most and she plodded when she walked. And, as the other girls assured me in gym class, she believed, really believed, that she had boyfriends who were movie stars. This was almost always punctuated with a “watch this”, from someone, who would then turn to her from our hard metal bench seats, call out her name loudly, and ask who she had a date with that weekend. I can still see her eyes flutter open and shut behind the dated cat’s eye glasses, and she would then call out some pop star singer’s name or movie star’s name that she claimed to have a date with. And triumphantly, the girl who asked would turn and say, “See”! And the rest of us, myself included, would laugh.
I don’t think I ever actually asked her myself. I don’t remember ever even talking to her. But I saw her being the target of football players who, maybe even on a dare, would either openly make fun of her or pretend to be interested in her. And she would smile and her eyes would flutter open and shut and she would plod away into another school day and we all just presumed this to be what was normal.
And somehow, we blinked and raised kids and became grandparents and most of us learned about the brevity of life and the speed with which it torpedoes past, and it has been 45 years since high school graduation. And my brother and sister- in- law went and this time, unlike any other reunion, she was there. As I scanned the group photo for the familiar cat’s eye glasses I didn’t see them. I searched each row of attendees and zoomed in on my computer. And I saw her name written on a stick- on nametag and I zoomed in more and she was smiling…a brave but genuine smile. Like most of the rest of us, her hair is colored and now it is straight. She wore makeup, and as I told my brother, she looked as good as any other woman there and even better than some.
My brother told me that two football players went and apologized to her for their actions in high school. Both of these men danced with her at the reunion. Another man who is now a pastor, asked forgiveness for anything he may have said in high school to offend anyone. And this woman probably had one of the most special nights of her life. Maybe it is simply that after 45 years have passed most of us know what is really important and that there might not be another chance to seek forgiveness. My brother mentioned that the class of ’74 has lost 63 people since graduation.
If I had been there I think I would love to have asked her what her memories are of high school. As we all self-consciously got dressed each morning and looked repeatedly in our mirrors and tried to wear just the right shoes and jeans, what was she thinking? Did she wake up each morning with a sense of dread at another day of being ridiculed? In my memories, she smiled a lot. I have no memory of her ever lashing out as she was teased.
It is raining today as I work at Brother Bryan Mission. There are men here who struggle with the day to day rubbing of shoulders and close quarter living and just daily life interactions. There are men who will leave this weekend, and there are men praying that Monday they will have a bed and get a chance to start over. The mail comes and there are kind people who generously give, and there are others who superfluously mail business reply envelopes to try and irritate. And I begin to fine-tune my thoughts about redemption. Maybe the people with funny sounding names and dated glasses who are bullied in high school and return morning after morning wearing a smile are the ones who will lead in the kingdom to come. Maybe the people who were homecoming queens and quarterbacks have already experienced the glory that this crumbling world offers, and they will be the servants of all. And how much courage would it have taken for me to simply say, “Don’t keep asking her that”? Or to simply go and sit beside her at lunch.
Playing fields have a way of being leveled. Class reunion photos after 45 years are proof. Men have lost their hair and women their figures, and everyone feels the hot breath of old age on our necks. It is the equalizer, and the men who come through these doors at BBM are all holding out open palms, bowed over with the weight of ridicule that drugs and alcohol and severed relationships can bring.
There is a sacred beauty in sitting beside someone, looking into their eyes, and saying, “I was wrong to mistreat you”. To own the pain we caused others, whether explicit or complicit. It is what redemption is all about.
Sometimes we need to bravely change lanes and be amazed when the view changes to beauty that was there all along.