How did we choose our friends in childhood? The question hovered as I made my way through the throng of classmates at my 35th high school reunion last weekend.
In retrospect, our communication skills at age seven seemed to be little more than grunts and hand signals compared to the now articulate, self-assured ease of our small talk over tables littered with memorabilia, old yearbooks, jars stuffed with the penny candies of our youth. My own friend choices had largely been those of comfort and convenience. Since I was so shy, the majority of my friendships were often initiated by a kid who was more outgoing than I and who fearlessly made the first move to break the ice: a neighbor, fellow Girl Scout, band or choir buddy. And there were the exceptions, the kids I sought out, the ones who made me forget my shyness, who taught me how to smoke and swear, or whose dry wit made me laugh my guts out.
Much of the time, though, I was acutely aware that our world was very small and I felt smaller still. A minnow hugging the edge of a rain puddle. Comfort quickly became habit. I sought out the familiar faces, the ones that lit up with recognition upon my approach. It kept me from feeling completely invisible at a time of life when I desperately sought anonymity.
After high school I threw myself into a much larger world. True to form, I clung to the edges of various puddles, occasionally jumping into a lake, even an ocean or two. No familiar faces, no history. But one thing remained the same: I made friends with those who reached out to me, allowing myself to be chosen rather than risking rejection. They were friendships made in the workplace, rarely lasting much past the migration to a different job at another company. In that sense, the adult world was a bit like high school. After graduation, a lot of my friends had scattered and mostly lost touch, moving away to a college out of state or marrying or immersing themselves in the work world. Perhaps we knew in our guts that it was necessary to cut the ties that kept us from truly growing up. Despite this self-imposed exile, however, the connection was still there in the bone and in the marrow. Unlike friends I had made in the workplace, my childhood friends and I rediscovered each other over the years and easily picked up where we left off.
To this day, my closest, dearest friends are those from childhood. As I hobbled from room to room at the reunion party, grabbing old friend and acquaintance alike (“Hi, baby,” I would coo in their ears, “so glad you’re here”), the warmth I saw in their eyes was genuine, the hug I gave was returned with equal warmth. Memory makes the words flow easily, decades of estrangement melt away. You just don’t have to work that hard to talk to a former child with whom you were also a child.
Unlike those friendships developed in adulthood, there are fewer rules among childhood friends. We more easily forgive the faults and transgressions of an old friend than those of a new acquaintance. Perhaps because we will always be children with these people, and no adult worth their salt would ever hold a grudge against a child. And though we delight in getting to know the revised adult version of these former fifteen-year-olds, we are comforted that we can, at any time, gaze into each other’s eyes and find the kid we once knew.