When I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I was bullied mercilessly by a girl in my class, who happened to live down the street from me, and the people who followed her.
“WHAAAAAT?????” you are thinking. “I thought this was going to be some kind of gratitude post!!!!!”
Hang with me. I’ll get there.
The bullying was relentless. It included, but was not limited to: gum in my hair on the bus; being tripped as I walked into a classroom only to sprawl face first onto the floor in front of everyone; being cruelly mocked for reading Shakespeare and Hawthorne in my free moments during the school day; and, perhaps most memorably, the time she had a party or gathering of some sort at her house and all the girls walked down the street to my house (because I wasn’t invited, of course), stood out front, and, on the count of three, yelled, “Elaine is a p*ssy.”
Every morning waiting for the bus was an exercise in anxiety. I never knew what the day would bring. I never knew how bad it would be. I grew to always expect and assume the worst.
I remember seeing an After School Special around that time in which some of the popular kids decided to pretend to befriend the nerdy girl in school and give her a makeover. It was supposed to be some kind of prank, though I don’t remember what the end goal of the prank was. Instead, as they pretended to be her friend, they got to know her, and? They got to like her. In the end, she’d gotten friends and a makeover and was no longer the nerdy girl.
I knew it was pathetic, but I wanted my life to be that After School Special. I wanted someone to at least pretend to be my friend long enough to get to know me and decide I shouldn’t be mocked and tripped and reviled. It was truly the most miserable time of my life (which is saying something, given the cancer diagnosis this year and more tragedy that started literal days after my mastectomy).
Then came the summer after my eighth grade year.
A new family moved into my church congregation and, somehow, as if by magic, our youth group started to gel in a way it hadn’t before. I had a new best friend who looked like a Star Search spokesmodel (remember that show?) and I also had a “squad” (though nobody used that term in the 80s, and for all I know they don’t use it any more now, either). These friends didn’t go to my school, so the labels and baggage of that sociopolitical environment had no bearing whatsoever on our relationships, and, with these friends, I thrived.
We went dancing. We went go-karting. We went golfing. We went to the movies. We had movie marathons in my parents’ basement. We toilet papered each other’s houses. We had water fights.
The water fights were epic. I’m a writer, yet I don’t know that I can adequately describe them. There were balloons, but also? There were buckets and long hoses and running around the house and in and out of the trees of my parents’ ash grove. There were no real rules and no real goals, but there was so much fun and more group friendship than I’ve experienced since.
After the water fights, there were bonfires that would last until the wee hours of the morning. Songs on the radio. Ghost stories (with neighboring peacocks sometimes screaming at just the right moment. S’mores. Laughter.
I got my After School Special. I got it in spades. I got it in buckets. I got it in dump trucks and front end loaders.
These friends didn’t go to my high school, yet they made my high school years livable. They made my high school years, both out of school and in school, (mostly) enjoyable. Because of them, I came to generally expect and frequently assume the best no matter where I was.
I am so thankful for these friends. So greatly, eternally thankful for these friends. They saved me. They loved me (or, at least, I felt like they did). They helped me, in no small measure, become the person I am today: much more confident, much more able to stand up for myself, much more able to set boundaries and not tolerate what I don’t deserve, and much, much more able to be open and vulnerable with others. Even though we have drifted apart geographically and in other ways, I will never stop being thankful for these friends.
Remember how I said these friends didn’t go to my school? Well, there was one. I guess he was a crossover friend.
He was my brother’s friend from school, so two years ahead of me, but he came to hang out with our posse of church kids almost every time we were together (which, it seems, was all. the. time. — not just at church activities).
I won’t claim he was my best friend, because he wasn’t. I won’t claim we remained super close over the decades, because we didn’t. But when he went off with the military and I went off to college, we wrote back and forth a bit, we would see each other when we were home for the holidays at the same time, and then, eventually, we kept in touch over social media.
He very unexpectedly passed a few days ago. He is the first member of that tight friend group to go. It’s been a shock.
So today, I am also thankful for him specifically. He was part of that crazy, wonderful group of friends who helped form me during those formative years and beyond. He was, for a few years anyway, like a brother to me. I haven’t actually seen him or talked to him off social media in many years, so I suppose it would be disingenuous to say I will miss him, but I will always, always be thankful for him.