In the short story The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant tells the story of a woman of modest means who borrows an expensive necklace from a friend. She wears it to a grand occasion, but then loses it on her way home. Not wanting to admit her irresponsibility to her friend, she borrows a huge sum of money to replace it.
It takes her ten years to pay off the debt, and in that time the experience ages her to the point where she is hardly recognizable as the same person. Not long after her decade of strife she learns the necklace she lost was a fake, worth only one-twentieth of the debt she had assumed.
It is a downer of a story, but I was reminded of it while thinking about another story. This one I actually witnessed first hand. The names have been changed to maintain some level of anonymity but I assure you this happened exactly as I am about to tell you.
Back in middle school I had a good friend named Ted. We met in seventh grade, had several classes together and we hung out quite a bit outside school. Middle school is a horrible time for most people and my experience was no different. That said, friends like Ted made it tolerable.
When we all moved on to 9th grade, Ted’s parents sent him to one of the Catholic high schools in town. Though he lived only a mile away, I rarely saw him throughout high school, and when we all went off to college we lost touch completely.
In high school I had a friend named Linda. I can’t remember exactly how we met but our friendship was little more than peripheral. We “dated” briefly in tenth grade. And by dated, I mean we talked on the phone sometimes. The only “date” we went on was to take the city bus downtown with a few other friends on November 1st 1984 to see Ronald Reagan at a campaign stop at the Rochester War Memorial.
We remained friends through the end of high school, but much like my connection to Ted, we all went to college leaving the past behind. As far as I knew, Ted and Linda were never friends.
Fast-forward twenty-five years.
Social media is a funny thing. It serves as a very efficient vehicle for communication between good friends, and a great way to stay in touch with those away from which you otherwise might drift. It is on the fringes where things start to get weird.
Some time in the last ten years, Linkedin (as it has a habit of doing) showed me a list of people it thought I might know. After more than two decades of dormancy, I was reconnected with Ted. We didn’t have a conversation and we didn’t even exchange an email. An algorithm thought we knew each other and by the simple click of a mouse we both acknowledged it to be correct.
Three years ago I started a new job and as part of my ramping up, I sent messages out to all my Linkedin contacts. Not long after, I got a message back from Ted and after years of nothing, we bridged the gap between seventh grade German class and grown-up business. Ted chose my company t do some work for his and a friendship was reborn.
Around the same time, a similar algorithm over on Facebook, decided I might know this mother of three, named Linda. I confirmed the connection and another friendship lost to the ages was revived.
As part of a large project with Ted’s company, I flew out west to meet with him and his team. After a long day of meetings, Ted and I went out for dinner and spent hours reminiscing about the good old days of middle school. At one point we were comparing our respective lists of ancient friends with which we were still in touch. Not knowing I was stepping on a long buried adolescent land mine I said, “Hey, remember Linda? I had coffee with her a few months ago.”
Ted’s face turned immediately sour as he gruffly stated, “Linda? Seriously? Ugh, I’m mad at her.”
He went on to tell the following story. In New York, seventh grade social studies focuses on New York State history. One of the assignments was to make a diorama of a New York State landmark. Ted chose Niagara Falls and he spent weeks working on it. Ted is the youngest in his family and the only boy. He did all the work on his diorama himself, sourcing parts and materials from anywhere he could. He was very proud of his work, though to look at it, there was no doubt it was the solo work of a seventh grader.
When the day came to turn the projects in, Ted carefully packaged up his creation and brought it to school. He went straight to his Social Studies room, wanting to turn it in before anything could happen to it.
He crossed the threshold into the room and there, on a desk in the front row, was a Niagara Falls “exhibit” so expertly crafted it could have come straight out of a museum. Standing behind it, pointing out specifics to the teacher was none other than… Linda.
Ted was crestfallen. He had poured his heart and soul into the project, only to be outdone by Linda and (clearly) the army of adults who had built her project.
Ted could not recall the grade he received, nor did he remember how he had done relative to Linda. All he remembered was he had played by the rules and he was rewarded by getting his ass kicked by someone who clearly hadn’t.
This was a grudge painful enough to harbor for a quarter century.
A couple months after my dinner with Ted, I met Linda in New York for lunch. I was in town on business and she came into the city on the train to meet me. We ate marginal food at a TGI Fridays in Penn Station. Not long after sitting down, I looked right across the table at her and said, “Remember Ted?”
She narrowed her brow replying, “Yeah, I think so?”
I continued, “Well, he’s pretty mad at you.”
I proceeded to tell her the story about the seventh grade social studies project and how Ted was still bitter.
She took a deep breath and explained. Linda was also the youngest in her family, but the only girl. Her father was a bit of a perfectionist and insisted on being materially involved in every school project, micromanaging to the point where anything turned in by Linda or her brothers rarely resembled student work at all. Linda hated this. She was embarrassed by every project she turned in because to her it was obvious she hadn’t done the work, and she figured everyone else knew too.
The problem in her family was so bad, she told me there were several projects she turned in that were simply “freshened-up” versions of projects turned in years earlier by her brothers.
When she got married, she told her husband that she would never place her hand on any of their children’s projects, and she would prefer if he didn’t either. She wanted her kids to do their own work, and feel the pride of an honest job well done. A feeling she never had until she went to college and got to do things entirely herself.
I was stunned by her response. Like Ted, I had assumed she simply took advantage of the “free help” and the good grades that came with it. We were both wrong.
She closed her story by saying, “Please tell Ted I’m sorry. I know he’ll have a hard time believing it, but I hated turning in those ‘perfect’ projects.”
A few days after, I was on the phone with Ted. I relayed to him what Linda had told me, and after a moment of silence he said, “I guess you never really know, so I probably ought to let it go.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
We humans believe what we perceive to be all there is to a story; most of the time we are wrong. Last week my story encouraged you to reach out to someone from your past and tell him or her how much they mean to you.
This week is going to be tougher.
We all have little hang ups, splinters from our past that still cause us pain when we recall them. It is time to dig out the emotional tweezers and excise one of these once and for all. Pick up the phone, send a text or jot an email.
Like Ted (sort of) said… Once you know, you’ll be able to let it go.
Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.