Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lenten Project: Day Thirty-four

I had a few pen pals when I was a kid.  Most of them were picked up while we were on our furloughs in 1994 and 1998, from churches and Sunday schools across the States.  I'm an oddball who keeps everything, and I still have a lot of those letters and cards I received. I'm no longer friends with anyone who wrote me, but I still remember the thrill of getting mail from my pen pals.

One girl in particular was a friend from a supporting church, and she was going to go to BJU the same year as I.  So we wrote and made big plans about how we'd be the best of friends and inseparable.  My dad, when we'd visited her church, had made a joke about she and I competing for the affections of the pastor's son who was also going to go to BJU with us that year.  We kept the joke alive and would banter about it in our letters sometimes. It was a humourous postscript in our correspondence.

When I showed up to the Bob Jones University campus in the fall of 2001, I was confident and sure of myself.  I knew I would not be starting off in the new place all alone--I had friends in the incoming freshman class!  I sought out my friend and was completely puzzled at her cold and standoffish behaviour.  The pastor's son, too, wasn't very welcoming, though he knew I'd only been in the States a short while.  There were a couple others from that church who snubbed me in the first few days before classes actually started, and I was totally confused and hurt.  I didn't know what was going on.

After days of this, one of the kids from that church found me in the campus bookstore and mentioned, almost under his breath like he was revealing a secret, that the whole group had been told about the joke of my dad's that had been made a running joke in our letters.  Only, they didn't think I'd been joking.  They thought I was serious.  So they were all avoiding me and didn't want to be around me at all.

I'm not sure what they thought would happen if we all were friends like I'd envisioned.  I was flabbergasted and shocked.  And really hurt.  A friend who I had been exchanging letters with for years believed the worst of me and hadn't even bothered to try to talk to me about it.  What's more, she'd told everyone else about her concerns and they'd all agreed to push me away.

I told the guy who'd enlightened me that I did not actually believe I would be competing for anyone's affections, that I knew my friend liked the pastor's son, and I'd been hoping they'd get together.  (They did eventually get married.) He shrugged and said that people believe what they wanna believe and it's hard changing their minds.

How I ended up with a picture of his family, I can't recall.
Maybe my friend sent it to me as part of the banter.

The pastor's son eventually tracked me down and apologised for the "misunderstanding," inviting me off campus to a barbecue with the kids from his church and their parents who had brought them to the start of the school year.  I declined.  I had no desire to be made a fool of.  I don't think we ever spoke to one another again.

It seems so petty now that I'm all grown up, but I so clearly remember the cutting blow of suddenly discovering that people I thought were my friends actually didn't even like me.  It made me question every other relationship and friendship I had, and I became a lot more tentative about making new friends.  If people say you'll be friends, they were probably lying--that's the lesson I took to heart and kept close during my years at college.

But another thing this episode revealed to me was that my world was a lot smaller than that of these American kids.  They had lots of friends--friends from school, friends from church, friends from their neighbourhoods--and had many different interactions with different people every day, while I might have had one or two a week, not counting my family.  So every letter I received was precious and a big deal.  When my pen pals wrote, "Friends forever," in their cards and letters, I thought they meant it.  The focal point of my days were narrowed down to those letters from the States or interactions with MKs.  So I elevated my pen pal acquaintances to idealised friendships, believing my pen pals were viewing me in the same way.  But they weren't.