Ninth grade Gandhi

Bonnie exuded difference. Now in a high school freshman biology class, this may not seem that unique. Who isn’t trying to find a fresh way to express themselves? To be set apart from the crowd in some way?

But Bonnie was different in that these thoughts never seemed to cross her mind. She was at ease in her own skin, and that peace of mind radiated from her. Quite a feat for most adults, nevertheless a fourteen year old. To a ninth grader, her peaceful and old-soul presence made you feel like you were sitting near Gandhi.

That’s what I noticed about her that first day of school. During a break from the usual classroom orientation, I heard a casual “hey” coming from behind me. She thought it was cool that we had similar sounding last names, and the conversation soon turned from the linguistics of surname spelling to the topic of faith. In a relatively ethnically and religiously diverse area as ours was, this wasn’t too big of a deal. But Bonnie always had respect for whatever you said, even if it clashed with her views, which is a much rarer find.

She wasn’t part of the “in crowd,” but that didn’t phase her. Indeed, her lack of concern could make the compensating over-confidents uneasy because they could tell she had what they only faked. I found I could be myself around her. In fact, if I tried pretending, I would start to squirm like a five-year-old who tries to get away with not washing her hands. You could tell Bonnie knew when you were not being honest with yourself or with her, but she never chided you for it. Her questions and demeanor instead made you want to be candid and unpretentious. She had a way of making everyone feel their full worth as humans.

We only had one year together before my family moved away, and I had the joy of starting a brand new high school my sophomore year. I wish I had had Bonnie’s friendship during those years. My new school was only an hour’s drive away, but culturally, it was a whole new world. Filled with folks who didn’t think twice about stabbing their best friend in the back if it allowed them to climb higher, appearance was everything.

What classes you took determined your intelligence. (Only Honors English and not AP? A dunce!) Your grade specified in which room you sat for lunch. (All sophomores and freshmen were losers and so had to sit in the right-hand room.) The amount of extra-curriculars you did determined just how caring, well-rounded, and athletic you were. (If not in at least four, you were a lazy, heartless person.) School administration forced our high school rival on us any chance they got to try to less the fights intramural sports brought. (If you couldn’t rub the loss in the losers face on Monday, what was the point of winning or even playing?) Everything was a competition, and it was hard not to be swept up into it all.

I wish Bonnie had been there to help remind me my worth did not come from any of those things. Even today, I can still care too much about people’s approval for what I am doing. Sometimes in a crowd, I feel like the unpopular outsider if my clothes aren’t as put together as others present. Or I feel inferior and guilty if I don’t get that TV reference, even if I know I have no desire to watch the show. But in those moments, I try to remember Bonnie. I didn’t keep in touch with her after freshman year, but almost twenty years later, she still inspires me.

I seek to be that comfortable in my own skin that I do not cower to what others may say I have to be. I want my own ease and knowledge of worth to overflow onto those around me, so they also may know the joy of freedom from false constraint that Bonnie taught (and still teaches) to me. I want my conversations to show I respect those who have differing viewpoints. And I hope, too, that one day I will have the chance to thank her for what she taught me in that biology class so many years ago.

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