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An Open Letter…to Everyone: My High School Do-Over

(*This isn’t a passive-aggressive “open letter”, rant-style, where I go off on your sucky behavior as a human, as it affects me or my people, but rather my own confession.)

This past weekend I was curious. After several years on Facebook reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, I thought it would be fun to look through the yearbook from my senior year of high school and see if I recognized people, because I barely recognize myself.  I headed to the seniors and went from Z to A.  There were a couple of things that stood out to me, the first being the abundant use of hairspray (and obvious reason for global warming) and, our amazing bangs.  Bang height and even wings took work, people, so before you mock it, know we worked hard for height that stayed throughout the day.

But what stood out to me even more than bangs, as I turned page after page, was NOT recognizing the faces of old friends or classmates, but that there was, ON EVERY SINGLE PAGE throughout our senior class, one or more students with special needs.  And I recognized every one of them.

This is where the “open letter” part comes in, not because I was awesome and recognized them or because we were all best friends, but because looking back, as I slowly turned each page and looked into every face, I didn’t know their names.  I’m so sorry I didn’t know their names.  So I read each of their names out loud, because I wanted to hear them in my ears, on my tongue, in my heart…because they were also God’s gifts to creation.

You see, I never teased “them”, made fun of “them” with others, or looked at “them” as anyone less…my parents always taught us to treat others the way we wanted to be treated.  I saw them at lunch, school assemblies, in between classes walking or rolling in a line to the furthermost corner of campus to their classrooms, but I didn’t join “them” at the “Buddy Club” and I never took the time to know “them” so that “them” was rather “us.” 

I’m not sure I knew HOW to.  I smiled and waved when I mustered strength out of my own high school insecurity.  I didn’t care if others saw me smiling at them, but at the time, I did care more about the opinions of others as a general theme rather than believing God’s truth about me…and for that, too, I apologize.

I’ll be honest.  Except for one year in Michigan, high school was awkward for me.  This is NOT an excuse, it’s just that looking back, even though I was captain of the swim team and played basketball and knew a lot of kids, I never really felt like I was part of any one group of people.

As I looked through the pages of my 1990 yearbook, awesome memories of good times did not flood me.  I did have fun, but I know from experience, “fun” isn’t the goal.  What did overwhelm me was the idea of what a high school do-over would look like, if you paid me to go back there

  • I would have joined Theater because, let’s be honest, my drama could have been put to better use.
  • I would have actually gone to my Guidance Counselor for more than just a class schedule.
  • I would have read all the books required for English Lit rather than winging it.
  • I would have skipped Math since my husband knows enough for both of us.
  • I would have baked cookies for the Facilities Crew.
  • I totally would have taken Shop, Metals, Wood, and Automotives.
  • I would have taken Art and then joined the Home Ec club so that today I’d have a wicked Etsy site.
  • I would have been on Student Council, but they didn’t vote me in…but since this is my do-over, I would have won and hopefully made a difference.
  • I would have asked my friend more about his Indian culture and upbringing, and joined “CHANT” to educate myself about those who were here before me.
  • I would have taken showers in the locker room after PE, because that was about hygiene, not body insecurity or comparison.
  • I totally would have joined the student Newspaper staff and honed my skills as a writer, interviewer, and reporter.
  • I would have joined the Band and played the saxophone, because it’s jazzy.
  • I would have been part of the Chess Club because there are permanent chess tables in parks.
  • I FOR SURE would have been on the Speech and Debate team because it would have prepared me for real life challenges, opened my eyes to other people’s ideas, and taught me how to communicate publicly with confidence.
  • And, I would have joined the Buddy Club, the club on campus where friendships were formed with the students in Special Education, and, apparently, there were no stereotypes and everyone was welcome.  If only this had been the ONLY club, we would have all been the better for it.

But I didn’t do any of the above things.  And THANK GOD I don’t get a high school do-over.

Like I said, I barely recognize myself from back then, not only physically (I’m STRONGER), but spiritually, emotionally, and as an overall human.  I’m definitely smarter than I was because I recognize that even though I wasn’t part of a lot of clubs, they all held value, and I trust that at the heart of the teaching sponsors, their purpose was to instill value and purpose.

I don’t regret being in sports because I learned a lot about working as a team and the art of collaboration, but I do regret not being mindful, purposeful, and intentional as a friend, of the many beautiful faces which graced each page of the senior pictures, the Special Education students who weren’t looking for my approval or acceptance, but who likely had so very much to teach me about love, friendship, and the art of acceptance.

I’m sorry I never took the time to know your names…I’m truly very sorry.

I can’t go back, but I can move forward.

If you have influence in the life of a school-age student, don’t encourage them to be part of what is popular.  Encourage them to do what they are gifted in, be part of what matters, help build worth in others, and especially to do hard things.

Let’s be strong together…because strong people build each other up.  No exceptions.  No exceptions.

If you are the parent or family member or friend of a child with special needs, I am sorry I wasn’t in the Buddy Club.  Please forgive me for my ignorance and not reaching out back then.  The loss of my son, who had so many special needs no one could even figure them out, first opened my eyes to this on a deeply profound level, but seeing the kids in my yearbook who were separated from the “mainstream” kids breaks my heart and only makes me more aware of our need to stop segregating all of our stereotypes and start collaborating for one another.

Let’s be strong together…because strong people build each other up.  No exceptions.  No exceptions.

If you are someone who has had no interaction with a person who has special needs, don’t be afraid and don’t beat yourself up about the past.  You may not understand all the specifics, but special needs look like many different things and comes in countless beautiful packages.  Our lives will be richer for not only knowing a face, but for learning the name behind it.

 

Comments

  1. This might be my favorite thing you’ve written. Having a brother with mental health issues and a daughter with serious learning disabilities has taught me so much over the years . Alas, I’m sad to admit that back in school I didn’t even know of the buddy club . In fact, I just learned about now while reading this post….. A do over? You bet I’d change some things.

    • Jesse, thanks! I actually just saw the page you signed and apparently 2nd hour was where we hashed out a lot of life…you called it “counseling hour.” Thanks for sharing about your brother and daughter. We can’t LIVE with regrets, but we can learn from them and it sounds as if you have, and are the wiser for it. Thanks for the encouragement, old friend!

  2. Even though I did take part in many of the things you wish you had, I still missed the boat in other ways. A couple of years after high school I was working for an eye doctor. I guy my age came in one day and said hi to me using my name. He asked how I had been and seemed to know me. He seemed really glad to see me. I apologized and and asked him if we knew one another. He looked into my eyes and explained that we had spent three years in the same grade in high school. I was sure I had never seen him in my life. I was so embarrassed. I went home and got out my year book and still didn’t have a clue. I was in the “cool” group. He was a farmer. Apparently cool girls didn’t need to take the time to get to know the farmer boys. Do over? Yup, I’d take the time to realize I was not so cool and to look every kid in the face and see them as person of value and not just someone put into a category because of where they lived or if they drove up to school in an awesome car or on a tracker.

    • Thanks for sharing, Ginger! As my neighbor encouraged me, it’s in the past but we have today and the future. Hey, I know you love farmers now! Ironically, when I moved to Michigan from Snottsdale, I didn’t want to move outside the city limits of Grand Rapids because I “didn’t want to go to school where they drive up on their tractors…” I had pre-judged and was so very wrong! That high school year was my favorite out in Caledonia because WE WERE ALL FRIENDS and even though people were “grouped” it seemed like they were groups without borders. I bawled when I had to move back to AZ.

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