Pass It On

I’m great at words, letting them roll out of my mouth in Mississppi-sized river of noise. But when deep emotion is involved, I go mute, opting for the cheap laugh if I have to say something. Often, though, the words do come, and I attempt to atone for my silence with a flurry of blogs, emails, and text messages.

This is one of those times. Today I went to the reunion of my high school church youth group. I’d known it was coming up, but didn’t decide to go until late last night when I made a run to the grocery for hamburger to make sloppy joes–yes, I know that’s only one step above taking potato chips. I considered taking chips, so I feel like a culinary wizard.

Why was I so reticent? I’m not sure. When I was in junior high and high school, this group of friends and my involvement in the church youth group was incredibly important to me. I tend to be very tribal–I have a few very close friends at any given time, but the tribe I’m in gives me a spiritual, intellectual and emotional home. For years, the youth group was my tribe. Other than my theatre/drama friends from high school and college,  I have never come close to replicating the sense of “tribe” I had there, and I know that I have tried, both consciously and unconsciously.

As a teacher, I can easily say that my greatest influences were my youth group leaders, Dick and Donna Snider. They taught me more through their patient, loving treatment of my friends and I than any college class or mentor I ever had. Their willingness to open their home and their hearts, non-stop and without qualification, to whoever wandered in, set a standard that I try to match everyday in my classroom.

So again, why was I so reticent about going? It’s odd to hear my friends–people who are 16 and 17 and 18 in my mind’s eye–talking about their grandchildren or what they’re doing since they’ve retired, but they are amazing people who are doing awesome things. Once I got there, I was eager to catch up with everyone.

But…it’s been a long, long time since I was the girl they remember. I’ve made a lot of choices that would confuse or disappoint my friends, and done things that I never imagined I’d do. Faith has always been complicated for me; I ask too many questions, follow too many bunny trails in my search for “truth.” While there are definitely points my conservative Evangelical friends and I would agree on, the places our faith journeys have diverged would trouble them. Even knowing that, I am comfortable being who and what I am. I just wasn’t sure I fit there anymore.

During the “sharing” time, when we were supposed to give an update about what we were doing and what our ministry is now, I avoided all that. I opted for the cheap laugh, in fact, when I got an opening (Sorry, Sharon–I really wasn’t going to give your husband my number….). Part of the reason that I was vague was simple: I don’t feel comfortable describing my career as a teacher as “my ministry.” I learn and gain as much from the kids and my coworkers as I give–and more honestly, I’m in a slump and know that at this point, I’m avoiding the deep connections and caring that “ministry” requires. I’ve been burnt and exhausted and known too many secrets, too many troubles. I’m stepping back, holding back–I’m letting someone else do the heavy lifting for a bit. I’ve carried enough burdens. That’s true in my professional life, at least.

That’s what I didn’t say today. The emotional tenor of the reunion struck me deeply, but I can’t openly sniffle and tear up like so many of them. I deflect, I joke, I nod sympathetically.

I sat there today, hearing all the stories about children’s accomplishments and meaningful lives, but I know that when I talked one-on-one with people, I heard other parts of their lives: health issues, professional disappointments, personal set-backs. Those felt more real to me than the litany of good, and those are the conversations I needed to have to know that I am still part of the tribe.




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