In 1987, I got invited to travel to England to play tennis as part of some kind of U.S. national team. I was thrilled. My mom was thrilled that I was good enough to be invited, but she didn’t like the idea of sending me overseas at thirteen years of age. Rather than send me, she came up with an alternative – nerd camp in Kirksville, Missouri. At the time, I didn’t think the two opportunities were in any way comparable, but I was thirteen and had no say, so off to Kirksville I went. “Thanks for nothing, Mother,” I thought as I hopped a flight for the Joseph Baldwin Academy. But in no time at all, I was so glad I went. In fact, I loved it so much that I returned in 1988 and 1989.
In the summer 1988 I met and fell in love with John, Kate and Andy, three people who hold a special place in my heart even today.
At nerd camp, we were in class from 9 to 12 and 1 to 4:30. Then we were in study hall from 6 to 7:30. (I might have those times slightly wrong, but you get the gist of our schedule.) We lived in the dorms together. We shared meals together. And we hung out. I took Shakespeare in 1987, Writing in 1988 and Logic in 1989. I know I learned things those summers, but mostly I remember loving the people and feeling loved by them. I remember wanting to write as well as Kate did, wanting to be smart and funny enough that someone like John would want me around, and wanting to believe that all guys were as kind and decent as I believed Andy to be. I remember waking up early in the mornings and hurrying downstairs to the dorm’s lobby, anxious to start my day with my friends. I remember staying up as late as I possibly could, not wanting to miss a moment of the laughter or antics in the dorm. I remember believing that I had found the best friends ever. At JBA, I felt known and understood. And I was.
After leaving JBA, we wrote one another letters, and I waited for the mail with anxious anticipation for a missive from one of my friends. Over the years, we stayed in contact most of the time. Kate and I went to John’s wedding together. Andy and John both visited me during college. John went to Atlanta with me to be my date to the wedding of some dear friends of mine. We emailed. We called. And eventually we connected on Facebook. Before Andy was on Facebook, he told me to look up his wife because she would have lots of pictures of their kids. So I did. For years, I’ve been observing their lives. With each call, email and post, I’ve fallen more and more in love with my friends and their families.
Early last October, it occurred to me that this summer would mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of our meeting, so I rallied my friends to attend a reunion, not in Kirksville, but in Cambridge, Iowa, on Andy’s farm. This past weekend, I went to the farm to meet Andy, his wife Laura Lynn, and their six children, John and his two children, and Kate and her two children. I knew it would be a special time. Kate was apparently somewhat skeptical, but I was completely confident we would enjoy one another. What I didn’t know was how much the weekend would matter to me.
This has been a tough year for me. I have felt loss. I have felt lost. I have felt old and unsure of my place in the world. I have felt lonely. But this weekend, I felt the joy of being in the company of friends. In their company, I was reminded of the younger version of myself that once existed. She was smart, determined, kind and incredibly hopeful in all things. I realized that I haven’t changed all that much, except perhaps in the hopefulness.
Not one of us has really changed. I’m still the quietest of the group. John’s still the most bold and funny. Kate’s still the most feeling and creative. And Andy still has a smile that makes me think he knows something the rest of us don’t. We are very much our kid selves in grown up form. Most importantly, we listened and loved just as we did when we were kids. John still challenged me to take risks. Kate still challenged me to embrace emotion and be vulnerable. Andy still challenged me to look outside myself and to receive grace. I even felt challenged by Laura Lynn. She is a fascinating combination of soft and strong, and she has an unwavering belief that she can figure anything out – how to make something, how to fix something, how to get something done. And she can.
As I returned to that place in my mind where I am fourteen and fifteen years old, my heart broke for the kid I once was, for the adult I thought I’d be, and the future I want to believe I still can have. Risk. Emotion. Vulnerability. Grace. Confidence that I will find my way. My friends mirrored for me the kid who went to Kirksville and fell deeply for the people she met there. It was good to see her again.
It was good to see all of my friends again and to make new ones. After this sweet and much needed weekend in the company of my friends, I look forward to what’s to come in all of our lives, including mine.