Changing schools is hard on a shy kid.
Out of necessity, my parents moved several times when I was a kid, and it always meant I had to go through the agonizing process of making new friends.
Though I survived and even managed to fulfill the parental prophesy that I would make new friends, one particularly hard move for me was leaving behind my eighth grade friends, whom I had bonded with over several years, to start as a freshman in Sevier County.
Not that Sevier County was bad. I still have many high school friends whom I cherish, but middle school seems to be that age when you first develop bonds likely to last beyond school and into later years of life.
From West View Middle School, I left behind Scott, Brian, Jeff, and Ronnie, who moved on to Morristown West High School without me. In our own version of “The Sandlot,” we had shared some of the best days of our lives. I truly grieved losing them and many others.
As my parents showed me the new high school I would be attending, I remember vividly my mother’s words of encouragement, pointing out the neat paw prints painted on the highway beginning miles away and leading right up to the school parking lot. It didn’t ease the pain, but I appreciated the effort.
It turned out that transitioning to Sevier County as a freshman was easier than I expected. With several middle schools feeding into the high school, everyone just assumed I was from one of the other schools. Mercifully camouflaged by all of the new friend-making, I didn’t stand out as “the new kid.”
I even made my first and best friend before school started. Tab Adams and I met a couple of weeks before school started at band camp.
Tab’s sister was drum major and understandably held him to a very high standard. He made a mistake one day while learning the halftime show and, demanding excellence, Tab’s sister gave him a stern instruction. Stationed immediately beside him, I heard her explaining that while they were on the field, she wasn’t his big sister and he needed to think that way.
She didn’t intend harshness but was clearly conveying that she could not and would not show favoritism. Tab appeared wounded, though. I leaned over and said, “Dang! You should move your entire bedroom to the football field!”
Tab laughed and just like that, we were best friends.
After almost a year of football games, halftime shows, sleepovers, and bicycling everywhere from the airport to K-mart (sorry you have to learn about it this way, Mom), Tab informed me that his dad got a new job and he would be moving away. I was devastated.
But again, I persevered and made new friends. I trust Tab did the same. By graduation four years later, I had fully assimilated into Sevierville and cried and remembered and laughed and shared with all the other friends I had accumulated over the last four years.
Still, there was just something magical when I heard friends declare that they had been together since kindergarten. I had traversed two states and five schools between kindergarten and high school. The idea of having stayed in the same place seemed like a fairy tale.
As an adult, through good fortune but also considerable stubbornness, I have ensured that my kids stayed in the same school system from day one. I am thrilled that they have never had to experience the awkwardness of walking in that first day and hearing the whispers of “new kid” permeate the room.
While I am grateful and a little proud of that feat, I have not been able to shield them from the loss of friends. This week, my teen daughter has lost two of her very best friends, one to Florida and another to Washington State.
While social media and texting will help these friendships remain somewhat intact, it cannot fully compensate for the physical absence and sense of loss they feel.
I have watched Olivia, Maria, and Drew grow up alongside Kaylee. Their sleepovers at our house, capped off with raucous silly laughter and millions of goldfish crackers and Hershey kiss wrappers strewn amongst the couch cushions, always make the place feel lived in and alive, especially in the wee morning hours.
They’ve shared laughter and joy, pain and sorrow. They’ve encouraged one another, been angry with each other, and consoled one another. They have met and passed all the required tests to cement lifelong friendships.
This past Sunday, after a final marathon goldfish- and foil-strewn sleepover, I drove Kaylee, Drew and Maria to the airport to see Olivia off on her flight to Washington. The day this column is published, Drew will drive away to Florida. It is a double whammy, and the emotions of all four girls ran high.
I had to keep a tight jaw as I watched the girls share their last coffee together, sit in a circle, laugh about silly things, and finally hug and cry and hug some more. Standing behind three sobbing teenagers, I watched Olivia walk up the terminal to her gate, and in my mind’s eye, I saw Scott, Jeff, Brian, Ronnie and even Tab and had to turn away.
It was one of those life moments you dread your child experiencing and at the same time value, recognizing the memories they will treasure for a lifetime, even through the pain.
It will get easier, girls. I promise.
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© Michael L. Collins
Originally published as “Losing friends a sad part of growing up.” in the June 17, 2015 edition of The Mountain Press