I timidly peeked around the corner to view row after row of meticulously aligned desks. My shiny, black patent-leather shoes reflecting my pristine, white ruffled socks below knees that were most likely sporting scrapes from the trips and spin-outs that most six-year-olds experience. The first day of school was a fairly new concept to me – I’d only done it once before – but this time I was starting completely over. The year before I had lived with my Grandma in Hebron and I went to school there, but now my mom had remarried. I was able to come back to Kirkersville. I had new brothers and sisters. A new dad. A new school. And, gulp, would have to make new friends.
I thought longingly of Stevie and Connie, my best friends from Mrs. Black’s Kindergarten class. I wished that they were there waiting for me. Any familiar face would be welcome. Other kids walked past me dressed in their best back-to-school duds and immediately fell into banter with their old friends. They were animated and laughing with their old comrades, delving into stories about what they did over the summer. I continued to gaze from behind my partially obstructed vantage point, hoping and praying that someone would be seeking me out, too. I had been assured that I’d make new friends but I was kinda hoping that they’d magically be there already, just waiting for my arrival. But no, I was the new kid. Nobody was waiting for me. I tightened my grip on my book bag and took the first big step into my new world.
I don’t recall if anyone truly paid attention to me or not since I was walking with my head down, perusing each desk looking for signs of vacancy. Most of the desks had backpacks already littering their surfaces or sweaters daintily draped across the back of a pint-sized chair. Each step I took brought a bigger sense of dread, soon I was going to have to turn around and try a different row. People were going to notice that. Finally, I passed a desk that looked empty. I slung my book bag over the back of the chair and swiftly tucked my ruffled dress under my bottom as I sat down. Whew! I staked my claim! I kinda felt like I belonged. I allowed my eyes to dart to either side and noticed that I was surrounded by girls who looked friendly enough but I didn’t allow myself to reach out to them. If they wanted to be friends with me they’d have to do all the work.
Suddenly, a girl rounded the corner and starting walking toward me. Her pigtails were swinging with each step she took and I thought, “Hooray! She’s coming to say Hello! To ME!” She maintained eye contact the entire way down the row. Just before she got to me, she reached out her hand and took something off the top of the desk. It was a little coin purse shaped like Mickey Mouse. Her piercing eyes were trained to mine as my smile faded to a frown. She didn’t say a word. She just took the coin purse, turned on her heel, and walked away. I slowly realized that this had been her desk and here I was, the new girl who came and stole it. I really didn’t see that coin purse until she came and took it. I figured my chance to make friends was over.
Then, before anything else could register, a girl wearing a shirt covered with clocks leaned over and said, “Hi. My name is Sandy.” She nodded her head toward the coin-purse girl and said “That’s Holly.” Then she turned to the girl behind her and said, “And this is Laura.” I looked at Sandy as if to say “Didn’t you just see what I did? I stole her desk!” But Sandy continued to chat. I stared at her shirt as she continued to tell me about herself. She told me that she had three brothers and liked dogs. I cautiously watched Holly take a new seat. Then Holly turned and started chatting with me, too. She mentioned that she had a sister and her grandparents operated a dairy farm. I finally gained enough courage to say “I have a whole new family.” The girls seemed stumped by this concept yet intrigued all at the same time, which, interestingly enough, is exactly how I felt about the situation myself.
The four of us remained close throughout grade school but Sandy and I were inseparable. We were exactly the same size and enjoyed pretty much the exact same things. We made Top 10 lists of boys we hoped we get to kiss someday, which in retrospect is quite comical because there were probably only 10 boys total in our class at any given time. So, essentially, everyone made the list. I cherish those moments of typical grade-school-aged whimsy, but the fact remained that my home life was difficult. There was a fair amount of emotional and physical abuse – not from my mother, mind you – but I never wanted to go home. And I never said a word to anyone about what I was enduring because I was afraid of the repercussions. But I think Sandy knew. Despite her young age she was able to catch on that something was not right. There was something about Sandy that was special. She wasn’t afraid of anything. I was in awe of her. I adored her. She was so soothing to me.
Our friendship was strong until about the eighth grade. A lot of things don’t survive those pre-teen years and I know, personally, that I did not celebrate good mental health during those years. The “new family” that I got in first grade had dismantled by seventh grade and I had to start all over again. In many ways it was good to start over, but I had lost pretty much everything that I’d known for the majority of my life. So, while I wasn’t a “bad” or “troubled” kid, I certainly had enough self-loathing to fuel an entire support group of emotionally incapacitated people. I was exhausting to be around. Regardless, life went on and Sandy and I went our separate ways.
In 2004, I was sitting in a room at Children’s Hospital, eight months pregnant with Madeline and cuddling my very sick little boy on my shrinking lap. He was resting after a particularly hard day of chemo. A soft knock on the door shook me out of my thoughts. I looked up to see Sandy standing there, asking if she could come in. She looked exactly the same and here I was sitting in a dark room, swollen, exhausted, hair hastily pulled back and rocking a boy who was rapidly losing his hair… not looking like I was ready for a high school reunion by any stretch of the means. I know she didn’t care one bit but I couldn’t help but feel totally unprepared to reunite. She came in and sat on the bed, chatting about nothing – anything – to take my mind off the obvious.
She didn’t talk about Ben. She didn’t ask what was going on in my life. She just wanted to come and say hi. I wondered how on earth she knew I was there. Turns out that she worked at the hospital and had heard through the grapevine that my son had been sick. She ended up stopping by now and then to take my mind off “stuff”. It was so soothing to me.
My sweet, old friend, the girl with all the clocks on her shirt, turned out to have a true understanding of what it meant to have excellent timing. And as she reached out to smooth my hair away from my tired, tear-streaked face and leaned down to kiss my very sick little boy, she said “I know it’s been so hard for you, Sar. I know it always has. But I love you. And I always will.”
It’s just the kind of girl she is. I’m not sure if she understands how she saved me that first day of First Grade or how she saved me all those years later, but I’m so grateful for her friendship. And for what it’s worth, she’ll always have a place in the warmest space of my heart.
Jackie Sharp gave me today’s word and while I’m sure “Sandy” was on her mind due to the storm that is pummeling the East Coast (or, perhaps she has a beach vacation planned shortly) I knew that the only meaning that “Sandy” has for me is what I wrote about above. Jackie has been a long-time supporter of my son, Ben, while we’ve been at war with cancer. She, herself, has two beautiful boys and was a dedicated nurse at Ohio State before she moved out of state. She loves my children so very much and I love her so much for that. Thanks, dear Jackie, for giving me a word that hammered home the importance of having “dear old friends.”