Sunday, February 26, 2012

Let's hear it for the boys

A few days ago, my friend Jeff posted a photo in which he and another of my almost-lifelong friends, Bill, are standing in front of an ice-cream shop. It's a typical photo, albeit a bit whimsical; we're all in our late 40s now, and going to the ice-cream store probably constitutes a little more fun than we have in our everyday lives.

The photo made me smile for any number of reasons; the years have treated both men well, and the faces that smiled back at me were the ones I remembered from our high-school days. But the way I felt was derived from more than that; these guys, and a few others, were a huge part of my history. And my friendships with them were considered a bit odd in an age where, as my dad often told me, "Nice girls don't call boys."

I don't think I'm the only woman who has ever been more comfortable having friendships with guys than with girls. During my formative years, from junior high through college, although I had female friends, my maximum comfort level was achieved when I hung out with boys. (And let's cut to the chase here -- I'm talking about platonic friendships. The guys who were my friends were not the ones I dated.)

Friendships didn't work out with all guys, mind you; I gravitated toward the ones who had more to them than met the eye. They weren't necessarily the jocks or the student-council representatives; they were nice guys who liked to write or read or listen to music or talk for hours. It was easy to open up to them about other, less worthy boys, or about school anxieties or family issues.

And the crux of it was just that: They listened, and they didn't seem to judge. We attended a Catholic school, and through eighth grade, we were grouped with the same 40 kids, give or take, year after year. We all knew each other, and we all had formed opinions, right or wrong, about our classmates.

In some ways, I was a square peg in a round hole. My hair wouldn't part in the middle and "feather back," and I read the dictionary for fun. I was also the only person in my class who didn't have a mom. Maybe some of my perceptions about others' opinions of me weren't correct, but at that point in my life, I didn't feel I fit in.

And my guy friends didn't care. They seemed to value the fact that I was smart and a good listener, and that I wasn't too shy to ask the kinds of questions that would lead them to talk about things they had wanted to talk about, but didn't know how. They didn't care that I had glasses and looked nothing like Marcia Brady, or that I was way too tall, having hit my full adult height of 5'4" when I was all of 11.

And there was more: If one of them liked a girl and was reluctant to let her know, I was the go-between, the eighth-grade romance broker. And I was also there to sympathize with them if that first crush just didn't work out.

High school and college were much the same, but on a different scale because I had boyfriends to factor into the equation. Everyone caught up to me in height and I lost the glasses; I was suddenly dateable, but that didn't put an end to my relationships with my guy friends. I still laugh at a yearbook inscription from the guy who was my boyfriend for two years in high school: "You spend more time with Marty and Steve than you do with me, and that's kind of weird. But I guess it's OK."

In retrospect, the fact that my guy friends valued me for the person I was had a great deal of bearing on the fact that I reached adulthood with my self-esteem intact. A boyfriend may have turned out to be not so great, but Bill or Jeff or Chris or Steve or Marty or Tom was there to remind me that my self-worth should be derived from so much more than the opinion of a boy who had dumped me because he fancied someone blonder or skinnier.

Don't get me wrong; I had some tried-and-true girlfriends during those years, too. Tricia and Susan and Francie and some others helped me understand that not everyone was a "Mean Girl," and my friendships with them, all of which still endure to some degree, led me to reach out to some of the women who are my best friends today.

Male/female friendships are more difficult in the adult world; I still have them, but they're different, as no one wants to be perceived as a boundary-crosser. I'm really happy, though, to see that each of my kids has close platonic friends of the opposite gender, and that my husband counts at least one woman among his closest allies at work.

As I look at the picture of Jeff and Bill and see photos of some of my other pals and their wives and families on Facebook, I wonder if those guys have any idea just how much they meant to a girl who was trying to find her way in the world. I doubt they realize that just by being themselves, they helped me let down my guard, let people in and begin to reach out.

My ability to be a good person in adulthood -- or to try to, anyway -- was shaped, at least in some degree, by their tutelage. And all these years later, as I smile at those still-young faces in the photo, it's high time to say "thanks."

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