Monday, November 17, 2014

Years passed allow time for reflection

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been almost 29 years since I last walked the halls of Perry Middle School, a campus that even back then was considered ancient.

Of course, when you’re 13, most everything seems ancient.

On Saturday, I’m driving my own middle-school child to Perry for All-Region Band tryouts, and as I’m apt to do, I’m certain to tell him a few stories.

Like about my first week at the school. I transferred in the middle of eighth grade, in the middle of a family crisis. I was slightly traumatized and terribly shy.

My U.S. history teacher didn’t go out of her way to help me fit in. She sat me in the front of the room, far apart from every other desk. I couldn’t bear to look up and around the room, into the eyes of people who I was certain would all be staring back at me, so I stared at my shoes with fierce intensity.

Karen Jackson befriended me in that class. Years later, we would reminisce about how we first met — friendly Karen and me, “the girl who stared at her shoes.”

Karen and I have been friends ever since. She rescued me many times. We’re separated by a few states, but our connection is strong.

I might tell my son about the spring dance. Not long after I arrived, a calendar came home with a note about a semi- formal. I wanted to fit in. My stepmother began creating a tea-length emerald green dress with an off-the-shoulder ruffle.

It was gorgeous.

The night of the dance, my naturally curly hair was even poufier with the help of hot rollers and a curling iron and some Aqua Net.

It was, perhaps, gorgeous for the era.

I walked into the dance. Lights were dim. Wham was blasting through the speakers. Clusters of young teens danced and talked and ran around.

They were all — every single one of them — wearing Hawaiian shirts or Jams shorts or, at the very least, leis. Except me, the new girl, in the homemade dress and white pumps from Kinney Shoes.

There’s a world of difference between semiformal and luau. We had either misread the calendar or missed a theme change somewhere along the way.

I escaped quickly to the bathroom, which provided no refuge at all. I was now trapped in a tiny room with only girls, all of whom had a front-row seat to my misery.

One girl said aloud, to no one in particular and therefore the entire congregation, “How sad.”

I escaped that scene to my small circle of friends on the dance floor.

Among them was Melissa Tarun, dressed appropriately for the occasion and, more important, armed with compassion and loyalty. She didn’t shrink away from her overdressed friend.

For three decades, she’s been clothed in best-friend- worthy qualities. My children call her “Aunt Melissa.” Whether I’ve got horrible news or big celebrations, she’s at the top of my list to call.

What I really want to tell Cooper as we drive to my old middle school this morning is that the choices we make when we’re young can have long-reaching effects. That there is incredible power in saying hello first, in standing in solidarity with a friend who feels alienated.

I want him to know that three decades later, what I remember most about some tough years are the people who made life smoother. I want him to know that the best gifts, the most memorable gifts, are moments of kindness and compassion, of love and acceptance.

I’ll likely keep silent on how fast his next 29 years will flash by. Some lessons must be lived to be learned.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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