Monday, September 24, 2012

That blasted 1977 cheerleading rejection, times a thousand

When I was in ninth grade, I wanted to be a cheerleader. Now, anyone who knows me is probably well aware that I never should have expected cheerleading to be my thing, for a variety of reasons -- chief among them the fact that I am not, and never have been, built for flipping and flying and things. But back in 1977, my 14-year-old self reasoned that because I could dance and because I also could enunciate precisely, I would make a great cheerleader.

The judges, understandably, did not agree, despite the fact that I had worked darned hard on my cartwheels. So I went home with some kind of “thanks for participating in tryouts” certificate, and I cried. Boy, did I cry. For days. That event marked my first real rejection, and it stung.

So here I am, 35 years later, feeling that same sting. It’s over something equally silly, when I really think about it. But despite the silliness of the way it all transpired, it hurts.

As my co-worker Dave puts it, I am very “relational.” I care about connecting with people, and when I make a friend, even if our time together is short-lived, I carry around, in my head and heart, that person’s smile and laugh and birthday and favorite color. I love finding common bonds and building on them, and I love the long histories I have with so many people in my life.

So, here’s the silly part: One of those people –- a person I’ve known since before my ill-fated cheerleading tryout -– decided he didn’t want to be my friend anymore on Facebook. I found out when I checked to see if he had uploaded any recent photos of his daughters, and Facebook invited me to connect with him, telling me we had 24 mutual friends.

There must be some mistake, I reasoned. But then, something told me to check the account of a friend who used to be close to both this friend and me, and sure enough, he was gone, too.

I was baffled. Although my feelings were immediately hurt, I also felt incredibly foolish; I’m not 13 years old, and the fact that I’m “friends” on Facebook with some people and not others should not impact me in the least. But those two people … wow. I had no idea what I could have done to cause such old and faithful friends to want to cut ties with me.

I stewed for a couple of days. Then, on the advice of another friend, I shot an email to the original unfriender. I’ve remained closer to him over the years than I have to his cohort, and it was his absence I had initially noticed.

In my email, I apologized for asking the question I was about to ask, and then I plowed forward: I had noticed that he had chosen to disconnect from me, and I was sorry if I had done anything to offend him.

A week later, I received a response. My friend told me that my expressing my political opinions on Facebook had turned him off. Although I had written very few statuses about my political views, I hadn’t exactly tried to hide those views, and I had commented on and “liked” friends’ responses, and some of them had shown up on his news feed. (And, oh, yes -– there was also that giant photo essay I posted the evening of the president’s visit. So I guess I had been a bit transparent.)

And although he still considered me a friend, he didn’t want to be connected to me electronically anymore. We could “agree to disagree” silently, across the miles.

I finished reading his response and sat back to process it. And while the 49-year-old me appreciated the honesty of his words, the 14-year-old me wiped away a few tears. Yes, Facebook can be juvenile and silly. But it’s also the primary way I stay in touch with friends who no longer are part of my daily life. And I knew I would miss his thoughtful posts about his work and his hobbies, and the photos of his lovely girls.

And I wondered: Would I ever make a similar choice? And I came to the conclusion that I absolutely would not.

I have friends and extended family members whose political views, religious views and even global worldviews differ wildly from mine. I don’t even have long histories with some of my conservative friends, and there are a few I have never actually met in real life; we’ve connected via other hobbies or intellectual pursuits. And yet, these friends enrich my life; they make me think. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sometimes tempted to “hide” the posts that rankle me, but cut off all contact? I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t.

And yet, my friend -– the one who walked me though breakups and bad math scores, the one who made me mixtapes and made me laugh and had been there when I truly needed him -– was unable to see enough value in the non-political parts of me to keep me around. And I decided: While the whole “unfriending” thing is pretty silly, it constituted, to me, a big-deal rejection of our shared history.

I remember leaving school at the end of the day I had found out I hadn’t made cheerleading. I remember walking out of the building and seeing pretty little Julie Drilling, who had been my grade-school classmate, holding a pink rose to signify that she had been asked to become a cheerleader. Julie was thin and cute and nice, and seeing her standing there, quietly, with her rose reminded me of all I wanted to be, and of all the ways I had, in my mind, fallen short. And I was sobbing before I hit the parking lot.

A few days later, though, I was back to concentrating on my own talents and realizing that I would absolutely be OK. I realize that now, too, of course … but as I grow older and know I’ve used up more life than I have left, the relationships I’ve held onto have proven themselves to be increasingly dear to me.

And because I continue to care about my friend, I’ve decided that my tears aren’t silly, and maybe I’ll shed a few more of them from time to time. I’ll also be thankful for the kind of friend I’ve chosen to be, and I guess I’ll also be grateful to him for, in effect, reminding me how to be an even better one to the people who have chosen to keep me around.

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