Mike had come all the way from Colorado to attend his high school's 40th class reunion.
About 15 of us gathered in a small bar in our home town of St. Peter, Minn., the night before the main reunion event. It was a pretty eclectic group, not just one big high school clique reuniting. At first we made small talk, but it didn't take long to transition into more meaningful conversations and story swapping.
Even those classmates who hadn't known one another well in high school found things to talk about. We laughed, we talked, we reminisced, we updated one another on our current lives and we discovered that our common ground 40 years after high school was broader than it had been when we were in biology or civics together.
After a few minutes of visiting, everyone seemed amazingly similar to the people they had been in high school, yet with 40 additional years of lifetime experience and without the self-consciousness and insecurities of high school.
Since graduating, these classmates had gone on to colleges, earned degrees, served their country, pursued careers, married, raised children, had grandchildren, (some even had great grandchildren), celebrated major birthdays and family weddings, bought homes, taken up new hobbies and activities and traveled to places all over the globe.
Collectively, they had also lost jobs, started over, struggled through difficult divorces, cared for aging parents, buried parents, siblings, spouses, and friends, retired from jobs, and survived cancer, alcoholism, strokes and other life-threatening diseases.
Still, there was something about all of us that slipped right back into who we were in high school. That's what caused me to ask Mike the question I'd been wanting to ask him ever since I heard he was coming to the reunion: "Can you still turn your eyelids inside out?" (He had freaked me out several times in grade school by sharing this particular talent.) He assured me that he could still perform this task and offered to demonstrate, but I took his word for it.
Back in grade school, Mike was best known for his mischievous deeds. Teachers frequently sent him out, and Mike was often disciplined. In those days a belt hung in the principal's office - and it wasn't used for holding up pants. Mike talked about his many trips to the principal's office, about the reputation he had earned from his mischief and about the harsh words of a high school counselor who had actually brought him to tears.
He asked me and several other classmates if he had been mean to us in school. The urgency in his voice suggested that he was eager to apologize if we confirmed his fears. I recalled the upturned eyelids vividly but assured Mike that he'd never been mean, merely mischievous.
He talked about his senior year visit with the counselor, about the counselor's defamatory words, about his low expectations - in fact his confidence that Mike would never succeed at anything in life. When Mike shared that he'd left that counselor's office in tears, I couldn't imagine it. Nothing about this boy with the mischievous nature had ever hinted at tears.
"He was a jerk," I said of the counselor. "I never liked him either."
I had heard the man say similar things about other students, and, when I shared this with Mike, a 40-year-old cloud cleared from his face.
"I thought it was just me," he said.
It wasn't just my stories; it was also the reassurances from me and other classmates that we'd never thought Mike was a bad person, that he'd never been mean to any of us, only teasing or mischievous, that the counselor's insensitive words were not aimed at him alone.
The cloud that cleared from Mike's face was a lifelong fear that had begun when he was a young boy who had been repeatedly told that he was bad, was mean, was useless, would never amount to anything. Too bad the counselor wasn't here to see this man who served his country for 21 years in the Air Force, who has traveled extensively, survived skirmishes, provided presidential security for Presidents Carter and Reagan, worked briefly for the FBI, and was presented with a U.S. flag signed by President George H. Bush when he retired from the Air Force to pursue another 20-year career for the federal government. He now holds three college degrees and is today a successful family man, still married to his original bride of 39 years.
Forty years had changed us all - physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically - but for some of us, old childhood fears that had plagued us for so many years could be put to rest. Maybe all of the hopes, dreams and goals of the members of the Class of 1971 haven't come to fruition, but many unexpected chapters of life have been lived.
We became who we are today because of our drive, our ambitions and the opportunities and twists of fate that presented themselves. Some of us were fortunate to benefit from encouragement along the way; others, like Mike, succeeded in spite of what was said or done to us.