Since probably mid-elementary school, I’ve been shy. My teachers described me that way then, and generally, I would describe myself that way now, though I’ve managed to enter the adult world semi-successfully at this point.
And when I was a freshman in high school, right at the peak of my self-consciousness about the way I looked and walked and talked and thought, a senior boy started waving at me. I don’t remember when or why, but suddenly, whenever I passed him in the small hallways of my high school, he would wave insistently, obviously wanting a response. At first, I refused to give him one, because I assumed that I was being made fun of, that I was the brunt of some mysterious joke.
As a high school teacher now, this makes me realize how little I really understood the people around me, because teenagers’ meanness tends to be somehow simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than this–it doesn’t usually take the middle way–but this fear of some potential mockery I wouldn’t understand dictated the way I behaved with peers outside my own social circle for a very long time. In fact, I probably didn’t entirely outgrow it until my early twenties. A close friend once lightly called me “ice queen,” and it cut surprisingly deep. But I realize now the name was warranted: I used to stiffen, and behave terse or even rude, sometimes outright ignoring innocent and friendly overtures. I figured if I just kept walking and didn’t engage, I wouldn’t get hurt.
But this guy kept on waving. It went on for weeks, multiple times a day, whenever our paths crossed. I couldn’t understand it: since it was a small school, he probably knew my name, but he was confident, cool, unnervingly older. What could he want from me? Finally, with my stomach rising up into my throat like a balloon, I took what felt like a very great risk, and waved back. And he didn’t make some insulting gesture as if he’d caught me in his trap, he didn’t turn to a friend and snicker (in fact, I think he was alone), instead he jumped and he cheered aloud. And in the days that followed he kept waving, even more enthusiastically than before. Pink-faced, I would raise a hand in response. Sometimes he would ask how my day was going. Occasionally a friend would notice the interaction, and I would shrug and whisper, I don’t know…
Gradually I accepted these uncomfortable moments in my day as simply part of my lot in life, and continued for months to dutifully wave, much to his delight. At the end of the year, instead of just saying hello, he began to badger me everytime he saw me to sign his senior journal, which was laid out with all the others on a table in the upstairs hallway (one of many adorable Caldwell traditions). The first few times I ignored the request. I figured he didn’t really mean it. But he kept asking and asking. So finally I did. I know some great war must have gone on inside me between my shyness and confusion over the whole situation and my innate desire to be original and witty in writing, but I have no actual memory of what I wrote. What I do know is that he must have demanded my yearbook to sign in return, because here’s what it says on the second-to-last page: “Dear Alice, Even though we don’t talk that much I still consider you a best friend. I’ll miss your waves.”
The combination of complete understatement and complete falsehood in the first sentence broke through to me, and I think I laughed when I read it. Somewhere in the swirling chaos of my fifteen-year-old thoughts, I finally understood that I had, for months, been the recipient of an ongoing act of pure and joyful kindness. The last line he wrote was the simple truth.
Mary and I flew to Vancouver on Saturday to visit for a few days and the sun was rising as we came over Wisconsin. Snow sat in the creases of the mountains, and as we descended into Minneapolis, the new yellow sun shooting through clumps of bare trees turned their brown bones a glowing orange-gold like momentary stained glass. And everyone at Regent, where I’ll be in school next year, really likes singing the doxology: before meals, before class, probably under their breath as they ride the city bus.
I am moving very far away in August, and the little girl who was frightened to wave has left the stifling shell of her paralysis behind in the dusty past. I am thankful for her, but more than that I am thankful for the bright figures dotted throughout my memory, who have waved and shouted and jumped up and down to lure me out of my shell, into courage and sometimes even light.