Tell me... have you ever thought...of changing your life?*
What a silly question-of course I had. It all started with my distrust of friends. With as many friends and acquaintances that I have now, it is hard to believe, but at one point, I trusted no one. The story is an old one-one of betrayal that, even now, some 22 years after it all happened, I still have problems writing about it. I had a best friend in school. We were both awkward kids trying to find our own way, but he and his family were always kind to me. They invited me to evenings a the local dinner theater and the various fish fries that would occur. We became very good friends. He was my first and closest buddy. I never flinched telling him about my worries, hopes and dreams. We talked about girls and the ones we were interested in. We talked about school and the changes that would occur once we were in the real world. We also talked about college and how we would still be best friends. Both of us were part of the gifted program in high school. We were in all of the accelerated courses together and, through most of high school, we were in academic competition with one another. I suppose it was that competition that proved to be too much for him.
I still remember the day of the betrayal. I was summoned to the principal's office. Apparently, someone had witnessed me cheating on a Government test. Really? I thought. That was odd. Government was one of my best classes. Why would someone think that I cheated? Nevertheless, the accusation was enough to put me on trial in front of the Honor Council. I was nervous-this was kind of surreal. At the trial, I was sure that I would be acquitted-I mean there was no evidence! This was too much.
And then my best friend showed up and told everyone there that he saw me change the answers on a test after it had been turned in. I was in shock. That had never happened. Yet, he was there bearing false witness. This was completely out of left field. I felt short of breath-my shirt felt tight around my chest. Just the other day, we had been making plans for after a running meet. Why was he doing this?
Tell me... have you ever thought...of changing your life?
At that point, I realized that I could trust no one. I would spend the rest of my life alone and would drive people away just so I would not have to live through a betrayal like this ever again. I had my revenge, of sorts. All of this happened during my 10th grade year. I went back to school as an 11th grader, and though I had been acquitted, whispers followed me around school.
"Artful is a cheater...no wonder he does so well on tests...the teachers should watch him...I mean, his OWN BEST FRIEND knows...cheater..."
Those were some of my darkest days. I had no one in my corner. I remember being depressed and I remember the emptiness of my school existence. I just put my shoulder to the grindstone and soldiered on. I did pretty well that year, and eventually the whispers died down. My former friend had taken all of our mutual friends with him, and I was left alone.
And then a funny thing happened-the first day back for my senior year, I was notified that I was one of two National Merit Finalists from our school. There was no cheating one's way to THAT! I also started taping the high school football games, and as payment, the principal gave me the BEST PARKING SPOT IN SCHOOL-a visitor's space right in front of the building. Fall gave way to spring, and I found that I had been accepted to all five of the schools that I had applied to. I was being invited to some of the football parties. I was letting people get to know a version of me...but not the real me...for as people were extolling my virtues and letting me know how glad they were to finally get to know me, I knew that they were not learning about the real me. At the same time, I took a small measure of pleasure in the fact that I was in the "in crowd" while my former friend was on the outside looking in. At the same time, this was all just superficial. I was counting the days until I could escape to college.
The first semester of college, I stuck to my guns and tried to maintain my independence. I was not a nice person...no...scratch that...I was an ASSHOLE. I now recognize it for what it was-a defense mechanism designed to drive people away from me and keep myself safe from getting hurt. It seemed to work pretty well. I never saw my actions as those of an asshole, but in retrospect, I cringe over some of the things that I said and did. The night that it all changed is something that is etched in my memory. I was in bed while others in my suite in the dorm were outside my room. They did not know I was in the suite. I could hear them talking...and the conversation turned to me and what a jerk I was. I started. That was never my intention-I never wanted to hurt anyone's feelings; I just wanted to be left alone. When my roommate came in, he was shocked to find that I was there the whole time. I felt horrible, but I told him that it was not nice that people said things behind my back. He asked me what did I expect? I had reached the point where my reputation at school was in danger of being permanent. He then asked me...
Tell me... have you ever thought...of changing your life?
I started. The problem was not with my former best friend-it was with ME. He will always have his shallow pathetic life, but that is no reason for me to have the SAME! My roommate (now one of my lifelong friends) and I spent the better part of the rest of the night talking. The next day, I took the step of finding everyone in my dorm suite and personally apologizing for my attitude and word of the previous six months. I knew that one apology would likely not be enough, and I intended that my actions would speak louder than my words. It took some time, but by the time my college years ended, I had made great strides and enjoyed many friendships. Since then, I have made a lot of friends, and the people who know me can attest to the fact that I am always ready with a smile on my face, a hug, and, where needed, a good glass of wine and a sofa for conversation.
Still...sometimes my mind goes back to the events of high school and the patience that my college roommate showed in giving me another chance. Where would I be had he not done that? Likely, I would be alone and would not have the blessings of so many friends and acquaintances who care about me. I made a conscious effort to change everything that night, and though it is hard sometimes, I still make an effort to be open and honest with the people that I meet. Of course, I always run the risk of getting hurt, but without risk, there could be no reward-and the rewards have vastly outweighed the hurt over the years.
*I stole the first line of this post from the play, Betrayal, by Harold Pinter as part of Grace's Stolen Lines series of blog posts.