On the day after Thanksgiving, I attended the 25th reunion of my high school class and experienced something quite unexpected. Actually, I almost didn’t go. Though I am in touch with most of my good friends from high school, many have moved away and were not planning to attend. Another friend mentioned that at our 20th reunion, she had run into few people from our circle of friends: the crowd consisted mostly of dimly remembered faces. And lest you think this an instance of snobbery, I should add that our graduating class at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, a large public school in suburban Philadelphia, counted 796 souls.
As the day drew nearer, I flirted with not going. I wasn’t eager to confront dozens of people saying, "So are you really a priest?" But my sister convinced me otherwise. "Are you crazy?" she said. "I had a great time at my 15th reunion! You’ll see so many people you’ve lost touch with."
So on a rainy night I set out, knowing that a few friends would be there, but otherwise unsure of what awaited me.
From the hotel lobby I spied a large crowd congregating near one of the ballrooms, and perceived only a faceless mass. Drawing closer, I was instantly greeted by one of my best friends from junior high school, named Steven. He introduced me to his wife of 15 years. After just a few minutes in his presence I was reminded what a good and kind person he was. And noticing this made me realize how good and kind he had been as an adolescent, when we were pals. Somehow, seeing Steven in his adulthood made me appreciate him more as a teenager. Another friend greeted us with a smile. He was noticeably calm and centered, and I thought: yes, this is how he was then, too.
A lanky, six-foot man approached me and started chatting amiably. He knew me instantly, without glancing at my name tag, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t recognize him. A few minutes after our conversation, I asked another friend who he was. "Believe it or not," he said, "that’s Mark."
When I last saw Mark he was 16, short and slight, so I had utterly failed to recognize him. I returned to him and admitted my mistake. He laughed. "Yeah, I grew!" In high school Mark was a kind and openhearted fellow. It turned out that after a few years in the Peace Corps in North Africa, he took a job in county planning in the Southwest, where he now lives with his wife. I told Mark that I had also spent some time in Africa, and after comparing notes, we laughed that our long-suffering French teacher might not have expected us to use our language skills in Morocco and Kenya. And again, I saw his goodness in adolescence more clearly than I had when I was young. During high school, I might have said of Mark, "Yeah, he’s a friend" or "He’s a nice guy." Over the course of the evening, I began to see how limited I had been in truly appreciating my friends.
The rest of the evening was spent, of course, catching upon mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, as well as husbands and wives, sons and daughters.
On the way home, I had an epiphany of sorts. Here were so many good people who were part of my life as a teenager - friends who cared for me in their own different ways. The ones who laughed with me and who put up with me when I acted silly or strange. The ones who lent me their notes, studied with me, commiserated over bad test grades, congratulated me when I did well and helped me to dream about the future. The ones who helped me become who I am. I kept thinking of a word usually reserved for religious communities: formation.
It was a realization that this was one way God cared for me when I was young. Here were the people God placed in my life to teach me about love and friendship. It was also a reminder that God does this constantly, for all of us - whether or not we enjoyed high school or college, or even enjoy our lives today. God is continually placing people in our lives to help us along the way. And how much more loving and happy we could be if we realized this not decades late, but now.