“Sometimes someone says something really small and it just fits into this empty place in your heart.” —My So-Called Life
Yesterday I saw my high school Algebra teacher. He was accompanied by his wife, who also worked at my high school as a counselor and vice principal. This would be unremarkable if I were in my home town, but I was at work 600 miles from home. I second-guessed myself when I fist saw him, but his wife was unmistakable. I wanted to find a reason to speak to them, knowing that a decade after I took his class he would have no reason to remember me, but was busy with customers.
My mood lifted when I saw them, a piece of home where I never expected it. Finally I approached his wife and introduced myself. She was never my counselor, so she also had no reason to recognize me. When I told her my name she smiled and said that she remembered it from my time at the school. While this may have been polite courtesy, she then asked who my parents were and nodded as I named them, making connections in her head. Finally, she asked I attended the elementary school that, in fact, I did attend. She laughed and said that she knew me through my sixth grade teacher, her close friend and walking partner.
This whole interaction left me glowing. A woman who had no business knowing me and, in fact, did not know me, somehow knew who I was. She remembered my name, my history, my people. She could have feigned recognition, but she knew me through a teacher that I loved. There was a time in my life when I was someone people knew. I was involved, a leader, someone who stood out. For twenty-two years, I was noteworthy. I’ve spent the past three years being reminded how unimportant, unremarkable, insignificant I am. I am surrounded by people who do not know my name, even when I am wearing a name tag. I have come to have a hard time discerning which me is the real me, which is the fraud.
Tonight I spent time with some friends from college. I met many of their new friends, most of whom are pursuing post-graduate degrees or are working in fulfilling “real” jobs. I felt out of place, embarrassed whenever I was asked what I do. At the same time, I talked with new people, asked about their lives, was engaging and enjoyed getting to know them. In a moment of clarity, I saw the me that used to be confident, personable and social. I saw the person I used to be, that person that relative strangers knew. Inadequacy quickly took over and I was ready to hide in my anonymity soon enough, but for a few minutes, the old me surfaced.
On the way home, my friend played a “sweet” song for me. Not being a fan of country music, I was biased and not incredibly inclined to listen, but I gave it a shot. My polite patience turned into almost immediate tears. The song was “The House That Built Me,” about going back to your roots when you’re lost. It’s about revisiting a childhood house, but it’s so much more. It’s finding the place that created the person you are, the world that bore you. Finding that origin, that point of creation, might bring back the person we’ve lost.
While there is a powerful healing that comes from visiting my house, home is much more. Home is seeing the friends who knew me when I worked hard, achieved high and led my peers. Home is seeing my parents, getting notes from them in the mail. It’s seeing someone who knew you by reputation, who remembers you a decade later, and gently reminds you that you are someone worth seeing.
I was someone important, someone impressive. I do not say this arrogantly or lightly. I say this because I was reminded, by a piece of home, of who I used to be in my past life. I say this because I hope, deep inside, I still am.
“I thought if I could touch this place or feel it/ This brokenness inside me might start healing/ Out here it’s like I’m someone else/ I thought that maybe I could find myself…” –Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”