I don’t recall the 7th grade being my favorite year in school. In fact, that may very well have been the worst year in my entire academic experience. It was a socially awkward time. It was a time of searching for a sense of identity. I had to deliver a speech in English class that year. The teacher made it clear in her critique of said speech that my future would not be in public speaking… Thankfully, my occupational identity was not completely determined in a 7th grade classroom.
In March of that year, my dad announced to our family that we would be moving to Texas as soon as school was out in June. I was actually hoping we could leave the next morning. Seeing Racine, Wisconsin in the rearview mirror of my dad’s 1974 Ford Torino sounded awfully good. I began a new life in Texas as a far more socially polished 8th grader. (It’s amazing what one summer can do for a kid’s confidence.) And I scoffed at the idea of ever returning to Racine.
Never say never… A set of unique and providential circumstances unfolded in September of 2009. I reconnected with friends I knew not only in 7th grade, but in my elementary school years as well. I also met people that I had only passed in the hall with at Jerstad Junior High in 1974. Such connections on social media led me to use my treasured rapid rewards points from Southwest Airlines to fly to Milwaukee on November 2nd, 2009. 9 years-ago today… It was a great trip! We toured Wind Point Elementary School, which was demolished this year. That tour proved to be my final walk down the hallways of my childhood. And we toured Jerstad Junior High as well. A wave of social awkwardness came over me so suddenly.
That initial trip back to Racine has led to many more flights on Southwest Airlines into Milwaukee. I have grown to love and value friends and fellow students from Jerstad that I didn’t really know in the 7th grade. I have also grown to love the aging parents of my friends. And of course, how could I not help but become attached to the children of my friends?
My experiences over these past 9 years are instructive for all of us. Here are some principles I have learned that I think are worth sharing:
· Reconnection is healing. We are surrounded by brokenness. Relationships around us are constantly imploding. Families are breaking apart. Unexpected deaths throw us for a loop like nothing else can. Experiencing reconnection is a healing experience in a life that is often characterized by brokenness. In my experience, reconnecting with childhood friends has been profoundly healing.
· Reconciliation is powerful. I said and did things as a kid that I deeply regret. I have experienced deep reconciliation with people over the past 9 years. There is nothing quite like reconciliation.
· Empathy changes perspectives. I have heard the stories of several of my classmates. I didn’t know that one of my fellow students lived in a foster home during our elementary school years together. There was a lot of family of origin stories I didn’t know at the time. But now I do know. And now, I feel profound empathy for each of my friends. I care far more deeply. And my capacity to love has increased substantially.
· Lifelong friendship is a gift. In 1970, we played marbles on the playground. When we gathered last summer, we didn’t bring our marbles. (I lost my marbles a long, long time ago!) However, one theme stood out from nearly all of my conversations with my friends. Caring for aging parents is a major life issue for nearly all of them. Facing the death of a parent is another reality of this chapter in life. My marbles are actually tucked away in a box in the deep depths of my garage, but my loyalty to my friends during this time of our lives is deeper than ever.
I thought Racine, Wisconsin in the rearview mirror of the Torino would close a chapter in my life. And I thought that chapter would never be reopened. Thankfully, I have been allowed to reopen that chapter and add some priceless content to it. On this anniversary of the first trip back, I am so thankful. Scoffing at idea of returning to Racine? What was I thinking?