Thursday, June 27, 2013

Of homecoming queens, boogers, and goodbyes said too soon

Laura Hardy, 1980 (thanks, Chris Chebuhar)
 When I was in high school, a pressing problem most days was deciding whether or not to match my knee socks to my blouse. (The rest of the ensemble was a uniform, so it was important to try to hang on to some shred of individualism, you see.) Try as I might, I never seemed to arrive at the look I wanted, and I marveled at the girls whose appearances seemed to have been achieved effortlessly.   

In our class of 507, a few girls did seem to have it all together all the time, pulling into the parking lot looking as if Cinderella's animated birds had carried their clothing to them that morning, trilling and leaving berries in their wake. Laura was one of those girls, completing whatever perfect ensemble she had chosen with blonde waves that Farrah Fawcett would have envied.

You know the type. She was a girl whom those of us less physically fortunate would have had countless reasons to envy. But she wasn’t a “mean girl” – although I didn’t know her nearly as well as others did, I knew it was impossible to feel anything negative about her because she was just so genuinely nice. I admired her, but if I had allowed myself to feel jealous, it just wouldn’t have seemed right.

Here's just one of the reasons I felt that way. This was the Laura I remember:

“Congratulations on making cheerleading, Laura!” I said one morning after results had been posted.

“Oh, thanks – I was really surprised!” she responded, wide-eyed and smiling. “I’m so happy that so many girls were able to make it, but it really makes me sad for the ones that didn’t. I’m going to talk to (so-and-so, the cheerleading moderator) to see if we can have a larger squad.” And she would, and lo and behold, a few other girls would have their days made … which of course made Laura even happier.

Or there was this. I won some minor writing contest once, and the school newspaper carried a little blurb. I had a class with Laura and she gave me a hug and congratulated me. I remember trying to downplay whatever award it was, as it really wasn’t a big deal; I think it may have involved a $25 prize.

Laura, whom everyone liked so much that she was voted homecoming queen, responded: “It IS a big deal. I’d give anything to have a talent like yours.”  And I remember thinking, “What?!” But her words stayed with me.  I guess they’re still with me.

Or this: I need to stress, again, how beautiful this girl was. But I walked into the girls’ restroom one day to see her peering into the mirror with her face smushed so close to it that she was leaving breath marks.  She turned and smiled apologetically.

“There’s a booger all the way up my nose, and when I breathe, I feel like it’s coming out,” she said.

The fact that Laura admitted to having boogers, in and of itself, made me like her even more.

I lost touch with Laura after high school, but as we grew older and settled in the same community, I’d run into her every now and again, usually at Target or the grocery store.  She still had that wide-eyed smile, and responded to everything I told her about my life or my kids as if those tidbits were the greatest pieces of information ever. And once, when I wrote a newspaper column that resonated with her, she took the time to send a personal, heartfelt note. 

Laura died this morning, and it feels almost disingenuous that I'm so broken-hearted at the news; so many of our classmates knew her far better than I did, sharing years upon years of experiences.  But I read not long ago that the people who impact our high-school selves are the ones whose imprints remain on us because they’re helping, during some emotionally driven years, to shape the people we ultimately become.

What a legacy it would be to have been poised enough as a teenager that to know that people never forget the way you make them feel. How fortunate I am that Laura left an imprint on me. I can only imagine that I am one of hundreds, thousands, whose days were made better because of her.   

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