Please Forgive the Mess

*Note:  This is a follow-up on my last post, On Teen Angst: Why It’s Ok to Not Be OK.

In the last few weeks, I’ve made my first professional foray into public schools.  All I’ve known in the past is private schools.  I went to two different private high schools as a teen and taught and subbed in countless private schools in all my travels.  But now I’m a substitute teacher at the local public high school, which leads to people asking me about the differences.  What’s it like being at the “big, bad public school” when all you’ve known is private school?

Honestly, I’m enjoying it.  Granted, I’m in a small-town community right now, not a big city, so don’t start imagining metal detectors at the door and policemen patrolling the halls.  We don’t have any of that.  But people still ask.  “Do the kids swear in front of you?”  “Are they rude and disrespectful?”  “Do they fight?”

Not all of them, but sometimes, yes.  Now ask me if kids did those things at the private school.  Because again, the answer is still yes.  So while I love private schools and whole-heartedly support the work they do, let’s stop pretending they don’t have their own problems, because they do.  

My sister commented that in a public school, people understand that life is messy and they have so much grace and acceptance for the problems.  There’s discipline, but there’s also understanding.  Private school kids have messy lives, too, but so many times we pretend we don’t.  Too often we sweep the problems under the rug, turn a blind eye to it, and stick our fingers in our ears going “LALALA!” trying to protect the perfect image.  We’re different, we think.  We’re not like those public school kids.  So private school kids like me get the impression that we have to be fine and dandy all the time.

When I posted the link to my last post (On Teen Angst) on my Facebook page, I wrote this intro:

This post is dedicated to those high school classmates that helped me survive adolescence, who had their own weights to carry and deep stories to tell, but still took the time to care for me. You know who you are. Thank you.

The more I thought about it, the more I was impressed by the weights some of my friends had to carry.  We were the good kids, my friends and I.  We were the valedictorian, salutatorian, student body president, student council members, leaders in athletics, fine arts, yearbook, and ministry.  We were the teachers’ pets trusted with the keys and the privilege of roaming the hallways when others would have gotten in trouble.  At various times many of us were on prom and homecoming court, too.  To see us laughing and talking, studying for our AP exams, rehearsing our shows, and planning our events, you wouldn’t guess how much mess we each carried.

Part of my mess was pretty public (my brother’s medical condition), but few people truly grasped my own emotional turmoil that went with it.  That was my mess, and my friends had their own messes.  An alcoholic father.  Abusive family members that could never be completely escaped. Parents that still lived together but whose marriage had already broken.  Depression.  Scars from bullying.  Scars from their own life-mistakes.   Even those of us who didn’t participate had seen the damage caused by sex, drugs, and alcohol.

We were messy.  But we were the good kids, so no one ever really talked about the mess.  No one told us it was ok to not be ok.  At home, I had to be strong for my parents, and at school I was expected to be this perfect girl.  But that’s why my friends were so absolutely incredible.  They had their own messes, but they still cared about mine.

Many people expressed concern about my brother’s health, but the moments that stand out in my mind were when people noticed that I was not ok, and they did something about it.  So I want to use the rest of this post to thank those friends that saw my mess and didn’t turn a blind eye to it.  These are the people who accepted my mess and loved me anyway.  Thank you for making it ok for me to not be ok.

(FYI – I’m posting people’s initials instead of full names.  If there’s a repeat, assume it’s a different person.  Apparently J, M, and K were popular first initials among my friends, but if you’re reading this, you’ll know who you are).

K. – You already know this, but I have to say once again how important our times spent talking, venting, and crying in the prop closet were for my emotional well-being.  I could always be weak around you, and that was so important.  Thank you for still being a wonderful friend.

J. –  You let me punch you.  You insisted I punch you.  I mean, holy cow.  I think you regretted it later, but still!  Ten years later that still stands out as one of the greatest acts of friendship someone has ever done for me.  I don’t think we were even that close yet, but you saw that I was clearly not ok, and instead of covering it over with sympathetic nonsense, you gave me a physical outlet for my frustration – your arm.  Thank you.

T. – I will never forget the image of walking in the main entrance and seeing your 6’4” frame come down the hall towards me, arms stretched out wide to wrap me up in a hug.  You towered over my tiny 5’2” build, so I would bury my face in your leather jacket as you embraced me.  For a few seconds, I didn’t have to face the world.  For a few seconds, I didn’t have to carry my own weight.  I know it was just a hug, but if we’re talking moments, those were some really important hugs.

K. – You talked our science teacher out of forcing me to go on that field trip so I wouldn’t have to miss another day of AP Calculus.  Apparently my own pleas didn’t work, but somehow you convinced him.  You also pulled me into the chapel in the mornings to pray. You went to Subway and made ridiculous sandwiches with me.  I know we lost touch immediately after I graduated, but you were amazing to me in high school, and I don’t think I ever thanked you properly.  So, thank you.

M. – Do you remember our walks before David and Lisa practice?  No one else was around and you would drop the “funny boy” persona and be real with me.  While you could make me laugh harder than any other student at that school, the moments that stand out as important were the moments when you were absolutely serious, when you let me see your own weakness.  It helped so much to know that I wasn’t the only one that lived in a world of facades and pretending to be OK when I really, really wasn’t.  It meant so much that you trusted me with that piece of your life.  Thank you.

To my lunch table girls – I’ve lost touch with almost all of you by now, but the laughter you provided on a daily basis was so amazing.  Lunch was often a bright spot in some very dark days.  Thank you.  To A. and M. and K., for all the times you got me out of that empty house when my parents were at the hospital, inviting me into your homes, convincing me to go to basketball games, and taking me out for my 18th birthday.  Thank you for providing a sense of normal where normal didn’t exist.

J. – Finally, the one that doesn’t make sense.  This name doesn’t fit with the others. I debated writing this one, because you and I didn’t hang out in high school.  Ever.  I mean, we had a graduating class of 30, so everyone knew everyone to some extent, but we ran in completely different circles – I was a theater nerd and you were a basketball boy.  But I always respected you.  You were my academic competition and one of the few genuinely good guys.  I noticed that.  And if I’m going to write a post about significant moments, I can’t ignore this one.  I’m not sure why it’s so powerful.  Maybe it’s the fact that we weren’t friends, and yet you took time to show me sincere compassion.  Maybe it’s that you saw my real mess and didn’t turn a blind eye to it, and didn’t judge it, either.  Maybe I was so sick of the surface-level sympathy that this one real moment took me completely by surprise and touched me in the deepest way.

It was the day that you saw me cry.  Unless I was with close friends, I usually tried to keep my crying confined to the prop closet or the bathroom, away from well-intentioned-but-misguided people who would inevitably exclaim “Aw!  Are you crying?!  What’s wrong?!”  But my brother was in an induced coma that day while the doctors tried to keep him from getting a brain infection, and I still went to school.  The painful reality of my “normal” life hit me full in the face and it was all I could to keep going through the motions of the day.  As soon as I got 10 minutes without distraction, I couldn’t keep up the facade.

I remember it so vividly.  We were in the science lab, and the lesson must have been over early, because everyone was just running around, being goofy as they always were.  I tuned out the chaos and just stared out the window.  The exhaustion, fear, confusion, and loneliness all rolled together in overwhelming emotion, and I didn’t even notice when the tears started to fall.  Eventually, I became aware.  I kept my eyes on the window because I didn’t want to accept the reality of the world and school and class and homework yet, but I knew I was silently crying.  Our classmates were leaving me alone, though.  That was a gift in itself, because I was so sick of the empty exclamations of sympathy.  I couldn’t see you, but I sensed you watching me.  Or rather, I felt someone watching me from the direction of your seat, and I hoped it was you.  I don’t think I could bear someone I respected less studying my weakness.  I remember being aware of you, of a look I caught out of the corner of my eye as the tears continued falling unchecked.  I wasn’t wrong.  You were watching me, and even in the brief glimpse I caught concern in your gaze. Then the moment broke as simultaneously a classmate came to talk to you and the bell rang.  But I remember catching you hesitate and glance my direction once more as I pulled myself back into reality and continued about my day.

I managed to forget about that moment over the next 24 hours.  Crying in school wasn’t exactly an uncommon event, and it’s possible that I would have forgotten about it forever, except that you reminded me the next morning.  It was a new day and I’d put on my semblance of “normal” again as we entered 1st block History.  As you took your seat you asked me if I was ok.  I took it as a typical morning greeting and replied that I was fine.  I’ll never forget the way you looked at me when you stopped what you were doing and said “No, seriously.  Better than yesterday?”

I don’t even know how to explain why that was so significant.  In just a few words you shattered my carefully crafted mask; you went far beyond the surface of polite pleasantries.  And you didn’t ask about my brother – you asked about me, if I was ok.  While people would genuinely inquire about my brother’s health, no one asked me about me.  Even the campus pastor had failed to ask me that.  And there you were, remembering my tears from the day before, compassion in your eyes, asking if I was ok.

I don’t remember how I responded.  I mumbled something like “oh yeah” and then Miss M. started class.  I was so taken aback by the question, because people who weren’t my close friends didn’t treat me like that.  Especially guys.  I had two guy friends that I trusted, and all other boys were much more likely to either give me a visual once-over or ignore me completely.  Guys never looked into my eyes with concern for all the emotional turmoil going on underneath the surface.  You did.  You saw my mess and accepted it like few people did.  Thank you.

As I was mulling all this over in my mind, the following song came on my iPod.  I thought it was fitting, so I’m going to end with it, dedicated to all my friends with their strength to bear their own messes and still help me with mine.  Maybe the many roads we’ve taken were meant to bring us together, to give grace and accept the mess.

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