Last night, the husband and I were reminiscing about being teenagers (For those of you who don’t know, the husband and I met each other for the first time when I was 10 and he was 12……and no, we were the farthest thing from childhood sweethearts! That’s another story for another day.) and we started talking about this one person we knew in our youth group way back in the day. (I will refer to this person as R from now on in my story) We were remembering how mean all the other kids were to R, like….really mean! R was a very close friend to me; R was also very slightly autistic which caused them to be a little more socially awkward than most 13-14 year olds. It was never debilitating but there was an obvious difference that made socializing very difficult for R.
“I told you about that time that people wouldn’t sit next to R right?” I said to the husband.
“What?! No!” he responded.
I proceeded to tell him about this one sunday morning at sunday school. My parents normally got to church early so I was always one of the first people in the youth rooms. Now in the youth room, there was a futon on one wall (that the boys normally claimed as their territory) and then a big, red, comfy couch on the opposite wall. (that’s where the girls normally set up camp)
I sat in my normal seat on the couch this Sunday, there were about four other girls there that morning talking with me; we were having a great time, talking about some new movie that had come out and enjoying each other’s company. And then R comes walking in and sits next to me. The girls in particular were very mean to R and as R sits down and starts making attempts to join our conversation all four girls get up and go sit on the opposite side of the room on the boys futon—-which is a pretty big deal since we were all still 13 and cooties were kind of still a thing.
I had always struggled to fit in entirely with the girls my age and this particular Sunday I felt like I was in, we were talking and R took me away from my conversation with the cool girls. Maybe the girls just thought that I’d rather talk with R instead of them, maybe it was just a mistake. So I get up and join the girls at their new spot, R following me as I do so; I’m trying to jump back into a conversation with the girls but they very deliberately stand up and walk back to the couch……….it was very obvious that if R was going to follow me around that I was not welcome.
I remember that sunday being very difficult, I was between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand you have sweet R, who is obviously different and struggling and I’m one of the few friends they have. And on the other, I so badly wanted to be one of the cool girls and if R didn’t cling to me the way they did, maybe I’d have a chance of being in the cool crowd! A lump of frustrated tears sat in my throat and I was trying so desperately not to cry, why did I have to be the nice person, why did I have to be R’s friend……….the answer was, because no one else would step up to the plate and do the right thing.
Now, I’m not telling this story to shout my praises from the rooftop. As you can see, there were some days that I got kind of mad at R for choosing me as a friend. But I’ve learned in life that you can’t choose your friends, sometimes you are just thrown together with someone and you are supposed to be their friend and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Sweet R had only two friends in that entire church that tallied up at about 200: me and this other girl a year younger than me. 2 people out of 200 would put aside any awkwardness they felt around R and would spend time with them.
The husband and I started talking about how R was diagnosed as only slightly autistic, and that if R was fully autistic or fully down’s syndrome or any other disability like that, the entire church would be crawling over themselves to be R’s friend. The church we grew up in had a trip they took every summer to this camp for families with disabled children. Each youth group volunteer would be assigned one kid with a disability to look after and make friends with during the day while the parent’s had a break. You’d think that after so many of these kids had helped at this camp that they would understand how much R needed a friend!
Especially at the tender young age of 13, doing the right thing can be one of the hardest decisions of your life. There were times that I wished I could be mean to R like all the other kids were because then, maybe I’d be accepted. I wished that there was someone else who R could cling to, someone a little more socially awkward than me who would gladly accept R as their one and only friend. I wished I could be free of the “responsibility” or “burden” of being R’s friend.
But then I’d take all of it all back; me and this other girl who was R’s friend would be invited over to R’s house to spend the night. We’d spend two, whole days listening to the Lord of the Rings books on tape (me and this other girl were LOTR fiends back in the day) with R’s family, we’d watch movies and play with each other’s hair and write stories together and go play in the woods the next day. It was so magical and fun, R was one of the sweetest and most sincere friend I’ve ever had! And after a sleepover at R’s house, I used to wonder how I could ever wish away a friendship like that. And then I’d feel bad for all the other kids who were mean to R because they would never know what a true friend they were missing out on.
Again, I’m not telling you this because I want the praise or admiration…there’s nothing to praise. I’ve just been thinking how much my life was changed by R because I did the right thing even though it was hard and I hated doing it sometimes. As situations become more complicated and doing the right thing becomes more difficult in our adult lives, I think we can more easily lose sight of what’s important and how much better off we’ll be by doing the right thing.
Those were just some thoughts on my mind and heart today and I hope you got something out of it. I hope this encouraged someone who needed it today.