H called me. I was in my new second home, the university library, writing a policy memo on the conflict in Yemen. I knew something was different about this call. I stepped out of the library and picked up the phone.
“Hey, what’s goin on?” I answered naturally.
“Um,” she was quiet. I listened intently.
“Derek P, you know. He passed away today. He crashed into a semi-truck.”
I grew up in a small, coal-mining town in Utah. As mentioned before, I was the only half-Asian around and I was often teased for being ‘weird.’ Luckily, I had great friends to help me survive the battlefield called elementary school, but middle school was an entirely different playing field.
In middle school I was separated from H, my best friend, left to survive the adolescent world of tween life by myself. It was brutal. In middle school, I was not only teased for being a minority (Asian and non-Mormon), but also for being an absolute nerd. I loved fantasy novels, video games, and anime (gotta love sailor moon). I was a nerd in every sense of the word and, while being a nerd is cool today, it was definitely not the thing to do back then. I was heckled and teased so much I would often skip class to escape the torture. It was awful. My classmates treated me like I had the plague, and I was so alone and isolated I often felt that perhaps it was true.
And then one day, a boy with sandy blonde hair and beautiful green eyes approached me in class.
“Hey, you played that new game right?” he suddenly asked. I winced, afraid this was somehow going to turn into a prank.
He smiled, “I just started, and it’s really good! Can you tell me how you defeated the first boss?”
We started talking and I was giddy with excitement. Pretty soon, we chatted everyday about how far we got in the game, about class, about life. He didn’t care that I looked different from everyone else, that my hobbies were weird or that I wasn’t the most popular kid in school. I was extremely shy as a young child, thus making it difficult for me to befriend others, and his kindness helped me to open up.
Since my separation from H, Derek was the first person to treat me like a normal, human being.
Like most adolescent girls my age, I developed a crush on Derek. I wrote his birthday in my calendar. I stared at him longingly from across the classroom. When he met up with me before class to talk about the latest games and fantasy novels, my heart skipped a beat. Although I knew it was all platonic, just talking to him for those few short moments everyday was a highlight.
When we graduated into junior high, of course, Derek and H started to “go out.”
For some reason, I wasn’t jealous or even upset. It seemed to make perfect sense. My crush ended, I was reunited with my best friend H and she was dating a cool dude.
Back then, “going out” meant holding hands during lunch break and leaving love notes to each other in lockers. Although Derek and H’s relationship didn’t last long, it was a courtship that turned into a friendship and lasted for years.
What I didn’t know back then was Derek’s troubled family life. His parents were both constantly in and out of jail on drug charges, and when they weren’t in prison, they were probably high at home. Derek was raised by his grandmother, but after she passed away he also started to fall into the drug scene like his brother.
That’s what happens when you live in small town America: drugs. Many of my high school classmates were either experimenting with drugs or heavily addicted–and the surprising thing was, they weren’t deadbeats. They were the ones succeeding, getting good GPAs, leading the class. My classmates didn’t fit the stereotype they taught us in drug prevention assemblies. The people that did drugs were the high-achievers all around me.
After high school, many of us went our separate ways. I heard that Derek battled addiction, then sobered up. He seemed to be getting his life back on track and, though I didn’t keep in touch with him post-high school, I was delighted to see his Facebook posts and observe his recovery.
I wasn’t close to Derek. I hadn’t talked to him face-to-face for years. I always thought, though, that if I went back to my old hometown and happened to see him, I would say:
Thank you. Thank you for talking to me in middle school and making me feel human. You have no idea how much those morning talks meant to me. You have no idea how much your actions, which you may not even remember, changed my life. Because of that, I will never forget you.
My only regret is that I couldn’t have said these words sooner. Before he relapsed.
Before he crashed into a semi-truck.
“Is this Mary?” a familiar voice asked when I picked up my phone today.
It was my old friend from high school. I hadn’t talked to her in over ten years.
She also battled with addiction for years. In fact, during senior year I was in agony trying to pull her out from the world of addiction, but it was already too late. I thought I lost her.
“I’m sorry for how I treated you.” She’s been sober for 4 years, “I meant to call you sooner, but I was scared. Thank you for being a nice person. I’m sorry I wasn’t better back then.”
The phone call moved me. I wasn’t mad at her. I never was. In fact, I hated myself for abandoning her when she may have needed me most, but I felt so helpless when facing her addiction.
I’m glad she didn’t meet the same fate as Derek. I’m thankful that we got to speak on the phone and express our regrets and gratitude. Our conversation was littered with the words “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” and most importantly:
Let’s meet again soon.
It was emotional for me. Our small town was strained by the hardships of poverty and ignorance. In my small town, ‘getting out’ was the pinnacle of success. Escaping the vortex of small-town America and going to university, which perhaps is a no-brainer to most Americans, was a sign of achievement for many of us in our graduating class. My town suffered from a drug abuse epidemic and, unfortunately, this disease spread to many of my classmates.
This is for Derek… and for all people in his situation. You influence lives. You may not even know it, but you helped me survive middle school and thus get me where I am today.
I’m the life you never knew you changed.. and I just want to say: Thank you.
Does anyone else have stories from growing up in a small town? Has drugs been an issue in your life?