But as I set off on the next stage of my academic life, I find myself reflecting even further back, to college--the last place I was very sad to leave--and even to high school, to friends I haven't seen in a long time and to one in particular I will never see again.
I've been thinking about my friend killed seven weeks ago while bicycling. I hadn't seen Erik for many years, though I had been meaning to do so, since we ended up living a short stretch of freeway from one another. Erik and I ran in the same circles in high school--those awkwardly earnest folks, geeks, and nerds who constituted the gifted magnet at our high school.
We had many classes together--the most memorable being the tenth-grade P.E. class comprising those few of us who weren't on a sports team and who, thanks to the gifted program's odd block schedule, ended up taking P.E. only every other day. It resembled not so much a gifted P.E. class as an adaptive one, and to this day I have great sympathy for the soccer coach who tried to lead our class of intellectually curious, hormone-addled misfits through track, basketball, weight training, and especially swimming and badminton.
I remember a girl classmate and friend of ours, upon seeing the wild-haired, gangly, and Scots-Irish-pale Erik in gym shorts, asked him, "Do those legs go all the way up?" It wasn't meant as an insult--we had all experienced too many of those and we knew we looked dorky in our not-quite-regulation P.E. uniforms--and I still smile at the memory of Erik, with his big, bouncy, ground-covering gait, blinking through his round glasses in shock at someone commenting on a body that (again, like all of ours) was not usually an object of sexual attention.
Our last couple years of high school, we also often ate lunch together with the same circle of friends, on the lawn near the entrance to the band room--where we gravitated because so many of us spent a couple hours a day in symphonic winds, band, or orchestra. It was pretty obvious that Erik had a crush on me, but I wasn't ready--wouldn't be for years, really--for a boyfriend. Still, my feigned ignorance of Erik's interest never kept Erik from being ridiculously nice, and I regret that in my shyness around boys I never really let him into my life the way I might have.
On one of my birthdays--I can't remember if it was my fifteenth or sixteenth, but it was on a weekend afternoon--he looked up my home address and rode his bike quite a distance from his neighborhood to mine to deliver a birthday card. I was in a foul mood--in tears at the moment he showed up--and thanked him without letting him into the house, in part because of my mood but also because I was too embarrassed and confused about boys to let my parents know that I even talked to any. I've often regretted not letting Erik in that day because he was such a nice, if earnest and awkward, guy--exactly my kind of friend, really. He deserved more kindness, as well as a glass of lemonade, on that warm June day. I wish I had found a moment in the intervening years to tell him how much his gesture meant to me. It was a revelation and a confirmation I needed as a teenage girl whose out-of-control thyroid was busy wreaking havoc with her body, mind, and self-esteem.
From third grade on, I was one of those kids--and I suspect Erik was, too--who was a bit too earnest, a bit too bright for my age and too uncomfortable in my own skin. I got picked on a lot from fourth grade through junior high and a bit into high school, and my defense was not to retaliate--I was never good with the quick retort--but to be not only nice to everyone, but to show a genuine interest in whatever they were enthusiastic about. (In fact, Erik often--to my exasperation at the time--started sentences with "You'll find this interesting.") In junior high, high school, and college, I think nerdy or geeky boys like Erik found my kindness and interest, my willingness to really listen, to be a respite from the myriad unkindnesses of adolescence and young adulthood.
One of the last images Erik uploaded to his Flickr account, and a favorite of mine.
I've tried to carry that kindness into adulthood, but one thing I learned from boys and young men like Erik--all those fiercely dorky yet (I now see) lovely guys who took an interest in me when my interest was very much elsewhere--is how to speak and live plainly, in the open, bravely. It hasn't been an easy lesson, and I certainly haven't learned to live as authentically and passionately and creatively as Erik did.
So this past week, as I've been thinking about all the terrific people I've had the great good fortune to have known here and before here, I've been returning often to Erik and to the nice boys--and realizing, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, that my glory was I had, and continue to have, such friends.
Though we never met, Erik spoke of you often in high school and I knew he was quite fond of you. As you know, those teenage years were hard on him, and all of you who were in any way different. I always told him that the qualities that made him stand out as an awkward teen would serve him well as an adult and that turned out to be true. I was so proud of the man he became and every day I cry because I'll never get to see what else he would have done with his life. My heart aches for him but it is so nice to know of the impact he had on others. Thanks Leslie.
Bobbie (Erik's mom)
A beautiful tribute, Leslie -- I'm teary having read it, although of course I never knew your friend. Clearly a special man who made the world around him a better place.
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