A friend asked the other day, “Remember Elaine from our high school? Did you hear she got married to an NFL player?”
Of course I remember Elaine. We were in the same fourth-grade class, with a borderline psychotic teacher who would go on epic rants and flip over students’ desks whenever they upset him. That year, the school offered free weekly music classes to those interested in learning to play an instrument. We both signed up for flute lessons, and the school ordered elementary étude books for us.
Somehow the music teacher fell under the impression that Elaine was no longer interested in the lessons. Either she missed the first class or two, or something got mixed-up with her registration. He crossed out her name on the book’s printed label, wrote in mine, and gave it to me.
The following week, the book was missing from my desk. Elaine confronted me about stealing it, and told me with a matter-of-fact smirk that she had taken back what was hers. I snatched it back a few days later while she was outside during recess. She enlisted the aid of two friends, and this little war continued for several more exchanges.
Eventually she demanded, “If this is your stupid book, why does it have my name printed on it?”
I didn’t have an answer. It never occurred to my eight-year-old self to take this to the music teacher for one.
Somehow, I know I ultimately won the war because I was able to keep up with the lessons without having to get a new book. I played in school and community ensembles, winning auditions and awards. Twenty years later, I still play gigs today.
Elaine never wound up doing anything music-related at school. She and I never spoke again after that year.
When the friend mentioned her name, I felt a jolt. The mind can be such a strange and powerful thing, with the way it discards information deemed no longer necessary for survival. The conflict with Elaine had frayed my nerves and chafed at an already anxious temperament. It had made me doubt my own sanity. Worst of all, it had marked the defining moment when I realized I was not one of the cool, confident kids like Elaine and her posse.
Yet some years later, the memory of it was buried entirely. After high school graduation, so was all memory of her existence—until it was suddenly exhumed by my friend’s question.
The mind tends to reduce events and interactions to fragments and snapshots. I remember my fourth-grade teacher shaking a classmate’s possessions out of his desk, but not a single lesson from that year. I remember Elaine only as a haughty, annoyed fourth-grader, brandishing my own book in my face. Does she remember me as a spiteful jerk who kept stealing her book for no reason? Does she blame me for singlehandedly discouraging her from studying music forever?
Most likely, she doesn’t think of me at all (especially if she is now happily married to a professional football player). We flatter ourselves with the assumption that others expend mental energy on us as we might want or expect.
After high school graduation, the school organized a party at a local college campus. Someone from my fifth-grade class approached me at the tables of catered sandwiches and asked if I had indeed climbed onto the roof of the school some weeks ago. Yes, I had—though I didn’t really know why I did it. “Power to you,” he replied, raising a fist and nodding respectfully. I didn’t really know why he respected that, either, but I was amused.
The next time I encountered this fellow again was at our ten-year high school reunion. He approached me at the bar and asked if I remembered climbing onto the roof of the high school. How did he retain this useless piece of information for ten years? We had been in the same school system since the fifth grade; why was this the only thing he seemed to know about me? What about all my musical accolades, academic achievements, and scintillating personality?
The knowledge that most people don’t think of you the way you think of you can be a double-edged sword. It can be disappointing or embarrassing to know that your interactions with others have been reduced to only the lowlights. On the flip side, most people aren’t obsessing over (or even noticing) your stumbles and trips, which can be quite liberating.
Best thing to do, as with most things in life, is try to have a good sense of humor about it.