At our 40th PHS reunion I found myself in a group of guys reminiscing about the good ol' days. Some of us had even gone to junior high together. One such guy was Johnny (not his real name). Johnny was, and I don't know how to put this gently, kind of a dork. Although he was quite bright, he had an odd voice and was socially awkward. He had no physical skills, but unlike me, he was always prepared in class and willing to risk raising his hand to answer the teacher's questions. He was "old" for his years.
In the group conversation, I reminded Johnny that we had attended John Marshall jr. high together and that he was the subject of one of my most important lessons from that time of life. He was curiously astonished as I related the story of his participation in the mile run at a school track meet. In those days, the whole school got out early and went down to the track bleachers and observed the competitive events. He had no idea that anyone would remember that painful day and no doubt was a little chagrined or possibly even embarrassed that I had.
I told him that I remembered how he had lined up with the other runners and responded slowly as the gun went off. By the time the runners had completed the first lap out of 4, Johnny had only run half a lap! As the runners continued the race, they lapped Johnny not once, but twice! After the competitors finished and congratulations were offered (this was before "high five" days) officials cleared the track for the 100 yard dash.
Johnny still hadn't finished! As he continued to plod along on the back stretch, the runners got set in their starting blocks and anticipated the starter's pistol shot. Sure enough, as they were released by the crack of the gun they rocketed down the track just in time to intersect with Johnny's entrance into the "straight" lanes. Johnny had to pull up just in the nick of time to avoid colliding with one of the runners, and finished his race some seconds after all the runners had finished theirs.
As I watched these events transpire, I was shocked that no one saw Johnny's heroic resolve to finish. As admiring fans and coaches flocked to the sprinters' sides, Johnny walked off the track in ignominy.
But I didn't rush to Johnny's aid. I didn't hurry to lift his spirits or be the friend he so desperately needed that day. I never mentioned it to him in gym class or any of the other classes we shared together. And I always regretted that I hadn't...until that 40th reunion, some 43 years after the event that caused him so much pain.
In that group of middle-aged men I told Johnny that he had been my hero that day. How I had admired his "chutzpah" for competing in and finishing the race that others, including myself, would have never attempted, much less finished. I apologized that I hadn't spoken up then and how I had lamented not saying something for many years. I wasn't about to let another hour go by without bringing up the subject.
Johnny's posture nearly folded in half and the pain of that day was on his face in an instant. His eyes welled up with tears long suppressed. He had a mix of relief and anguish on his face, but his reputation and self-image soared among us who maybe knew him then more deeply than ever before.
Within a few months, I received a call from Johnny and he shared that he was coming out to the San Diego area from the East Coast soon, and could we get together. I happily accepted his invitation and we met at a local restaurant. He graciously opened the conversation with an appreciative thanks for my accolade at the recent reunion. I reaffirmed my regret that I hadn't the nerve to speak up sooner, but was glad that I had, and that it had brought him some measure of closure, relief and vindication. We chatted about families, work and the experiences we'd had since those ancient days. Parting we expressed genuine appreciation for each other and amazement about the new friendship that had materialized.
The lesson I learned from the experience with Johnny is that you can go home again, but that it takes a willingness to remember and pass through joys and even pain that one might rather not revisit. I'm glad I spoke up at the reunion. And in a sense, I'm glad that I didn't say anything that afternoon at John Marshall jr. high. Restoring Johnny to the status he richly deserved reminded me of the grace that has sustained and restored me throughout my own life. Life is sweet, but always with a bit of the bitter as well. But it always tastes rich and satisfying.
I'm glad I went to that reunion. My life would be measurably less had I not spoken up that day. I found out a lot about the power of my words of affirmation. I'm hoping that you, too, can find a '66 classmate who would really appreciate hearing about the effect they had on your life.
Maybe they'll surprise you with their own memories of you!
Look forward to seeing and talking with you at the 50th, Dawg!