Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
In thinking about Valentine’s Day gifts, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned a few years ago. This particular lesson didn’t come at Cupid’s prompting, but it was heartfelt, and served as an important reminder about the gifts of love that count the most.
Almost three years ago I attended my forty-year high school reunion in Bellingham, Washington. Since my parents and I moved to Arizona right after I graduated, I’d only been back to my childhood stomping grounds twice during the previous four decades. Consequently, what for most of my classmates was a run-of-the-mill reunion took on epic proportions to me. It would be a chance to learn what all of those wonderful kids I had grown up with ended up doing with their lives.
Now, when most people attend a reunion, they want to show off. You know, brag a little, puff up their career a little, maybe even make their kids sound normal. But this was our forty-year reunion, so that ship had sailed. Avoiding humiliation seemed a more reasonable goal. Besides, in light of my long absence, I flew back to Puget Sound with a still different purpose in mind. I wanted to thank all the kids who had been such good friends. I wanted to thank Ed Biery for driving me around when he could drive and I couldn’t. So I did. I wanted to thank Curt Gurner for sticking up for me one day in the seventh grade when a ninth-grade bully was pushing me around and Curt “intervened” in my behalf. I thanked him profusely.
I also wanted to tell the wives of several of my close buddies a few of the fond memories I had of their spouses—stories they probably hadn’t heard. For instance, I met Lex Kalagis’s wife and told her of the time Lex ran for Fairhaven Junior High School President against the most popular kid in school. The kid who everyone expected to win walking away gave a humdrum speech full of hollow promises, after which everyone vigorously applauded his popularity. Then Lex stood up and quietly announced that he was there to represent the average kid. He was the people’s candidate. Lex started slowly and built to a crescendo of pumping fists and shouted anthems. As one, the student body arose and applauded their candidate. I still remember the look on the popular kid’s face as he was knocked down by a wave of proletariat payback. Lex won in a landslide. His wife loved the story.
I told Jim Zuanich’s wife of how one day he ran naked as a jaybird through a couple of dozen campsites back to our tent because Craig Hayes and I had mischievously taken his clothes from the public shower. Jim didn’t get angry. In fact, he had laughed heartily as he ran through the rough, in the buff. He wasn’t just a friend; he was the best kind of friend. He cheerfully put up with the immaturity with which we boys were so amply endowed.
For three hours I pushed my way through the crowd—reconnecting, thanking, and telling stories. But something was missing. As the night progressed, I kept asking everyone I ran into about the classmate who I was certain would have lived the most interesting life. I’ll call her Mary. I met her for the first time in the seventh grade. In the fall of 1958, several very different grade school classes had merged into one seventh-grade class. Mary had come from a school where the kids were way more intellectually advanced than the pathetically ignorant alumni of Larrabee Elementary, my school. Mary and her former classmates were into algebra and Latin. My classmates and I were fascinated by small shiny objects.
As luck would have it, Mary sat behind me in our seventh-grade homeroom class and for reasons I’ll never understand, stole my heart. Naturally, I was from the wrong side of the tracks. My dad worked for a few dimes over minimum wage; hers was a prominent lawyer. Our house had an ugly hole in the side yard where my brother and I had started to dig a pool but, of course, we never had the money to build one. Her three-story mansion had a tennis court next to an atrium. I had never heard the word atrium.
Every school day during our homeroom class I would turn around and stare into Mary’s deep brown eyes. Not constantly, of course, just enough to be creepy. She was too refined to be rude to me. I’m relatively certain that she felt sorry for me or was possibly even a little repulsed, but she never failed to be genuinely kind. I was a nervous little twit and not everyone found it in their heart to treat me with the dignity that Mary always showed me.
Mary was also a model student. Starting that first day of junior high school and for the next six years she meticulously prepared herself to head east to one of those big-named colleges I had only heard about in movies. For six years she earned top scores in her classes. I, in contrast, played around until the week before college commenced when I hastily applied to a junior college in Idaho. She went to one of the “Seven Sisters.”
Perhaps the most profound difference between the two of us lay in our social conscience. Mary was a model citizen. You could routinely find her in the hallways showing a new student around or talking to a lonely kid or rolling bandages. I, on the other hand, mostly leaned up against the hallway wall, bit off the ends of a black licorice whip (turning it into a pea-shooter), and shot small pieces of chewed-off licorice onto the angora sweaters of any girl who made the mistake of walking within range.
In short, Mary was rich, smart, and kind. I was poor, dim-witted, and . . . well, I was a teenage boy. And yet, despite being separated by a social chasm of monumental proportions, Mary was always nice to me. In return, I gave her the very best I had to offer. I never fired a wad of licorice at her.
But nobody at the reunion could tell me where Mary was, or what had happened to her. I found this hard to believe. Of course I wouldn’t know about Mary; I had been gone for forty years. But the people who had never left town didn’t know anything either. How could the most conspicuous person in our class, from the most prominent family in town, have disappeared? Consequently, when I stepped up to the display of photos of the classmates of ’64 who had already died, I was sure I’d find Mary’s picture.
No, Mary’s picture wasn’t posted along with the thirty-eight graduation photos of the deceased. Three had been killed in Vietnam, two had tragically taken their own lives, and the rest had fallen prey to natural causes.
Learning for the first time which of my childhood buddies had died by staring at their bright-eyed high-school photos struck my psyche a mighty blow. And just when I thought I couldn’t feel any lower, the loud-mouth emcee who had sporadically been making announcements about cars with their lights on sprinkled with bald jokes and the occasional Viagra reference stood up and explained that we would now pause for a moment of silence to honor those who had passed on. And then, as if we were all players in a Fellini movie, a kilted bagpiper marched into the center of the hall and played “Amazing Grace.” Now I was really feeling morose.
I was in this state, at the very bottom of my emotional spectrum, when a classmate finally offered up a scrap of information about sweet Mary. He had run into her in the local bookstore some twenty years earlier. She had been dressed in tattered hippy attire (this would have been a full decade after the movement), carrying a tiny baby in a sling. And then he kicked me in the gut with the news that Mary and child had hitchhiked across the country. I had to sit down as I tortured over the image of her, babe in arms, hitchhiking across the country. What had happened to her?
I know, it’s easy to come back with, “Hey, just because Mary didn’t end up the President or a corporate lawyer is no reason to be alarmed.” But a thirty-eight-year-old woman had hitchhiked 3,000 miles with a tiny baby. How could this tale ever be given a healthy spin? And it only grew worse. I learned from the very last person I talked to at the reunion that Mary was now living across the country in a one-room shack with no electricity. Mary. Sweet, kind, hope-of-America Mary.
My mind swirled as I tried to process the image of the finest girl I had known staring numbly into a kerosene lantern. At first I cursed the horrendous toll that had been paid by my generation—the first to be invited straight out of high school into a country-wide drug movement. Worse still, Mary had been lured east to one of those schools that made fun of everything she had held dear. I pictured smooth-tongued professors assaulting her like wolves in sheep-skin clothing—inviting her to turn her back on “The Man.” I imagined a classmate dropping LSD or some other hallucinogenic substance into her drink. Surely one or all of these things had combined forces to drag Mary down such a profoundly different path—one where she begged her way across America with a baby.
Next I wanted to help. I know, maybe Mary is fine, but all I could see was an image of her sitting alone in a shack and I wasn’t picturing Henry David Thoreau. But what could I do? What should I do? I hated feeling helpless. I wanted to board a plane or write a check or punch somebody. I wanted to do something. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what I should do.
Eventually an idea came to me. Why not return to my original plan? I wanted to thank the people who had been such good friends and role models. So, I’d write Mary a letter. Nothing fancy. No need to talk about her last forty years or mine. Just a brief explanation of how I had vowed to thank people who had been kind to me in my youth and she sat pretty high on that list. Since I hadn’t run into her in person, I’d drop her a line. I did just that.
After I mailed that letter to Mary, I was still feeling a bit tender around the edges. Usually when I’m feeling down I work hard to make things better or I at least turn the experience into a metaphorical teaching tool. Not today. Mary deserves better than to be reduced to an object lesson.
Instead I’ll end by saying that for once I probably did just the right thing—not too much, not too little. After a lengthy separation from my childhood friends, I sincerely thanked my buddies, including Mary, for their many kindnesses. Now I’ve honored Mary for not treating me as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, despite the fact that I was, in every sense of the words, from the wrong side of the tracks.
And while these small acts of appreciation were not offered as gifts tucked in heart-shaped boxes and wrapped with a red ribbon, they were certainly gifts of love. Happy Valentine’s Day sweet Mary. Happy Valentine’s Day to you all.