The phone rang every morning before school when I was in the tenth grade. It was always Renee. Her mother named her Temperance. And those of us who love her and know her, call her Rennie. There was a teacher at our school who tried to call her Rennie, too. The key word in that sentence is tried. Some things are not for everyone. But you already knew that, I am sure. You wouldn’t walk up to the President of the United States and call him, POTUS, right?
Rennie was always the person on the other end of the phone which was parked at the end of our upstairs hallway. The phone sat on a small, wooden table at the top of the stairs. Standing there, holding the phone to my ear, my toes sinking into the gray shag carpet, I could look out the window, past our garage rooftop and out across the yard. Or, depending on the morning, I could stretch the long phone cord all the way to the cedar closet in the hallway, and close the door behind me. Some mornings were harder than others.
Every morning before school, the phone rang and, when I answered, there was Renee on the other end, with a bible verse and prayer to get me through the day. She’d say things to me like, “We can do this,” or, “God is going there with us,” or, “Look for me when you get there.” Some days, that phone call was the only thing that got me out the front door and off to school for the day.
Lisa was our other friend at that Christian High School. She was quiet and petite and smart as a whip. Nothing got past her. She’s the one who told me the story about how, in English class, one student tossed around the words, “Nigger Jim,” with wild abandon and with no correction from the teacher. Lisa went directly to the administration to give them a piece of her mind. People listened when Lisa talked. She didn’t speak out often, but when she did, you had better pay attention. We were the three amigas. Or, as Renee says it with a chuckle, the three anegroes. We three were the only black women in our high school. It was a Christian high school, where there were no teachers of color and where being brown was not seen as a plus. Not by a long shot.
These women have my heart. They gave me backbone and they taught me how to survive when the odds are stacked against you. They taught me to stand up for myself and to speak up and out when it’s necessary. They also taught me how you can learn a lot about person by simply listening. If you listen long enough, a person will show you exactly who they are. And, as Maya Angelou told Oprah, “When a person shows you who they are, believe them.” Lisa and Renee were one year ahead of me in high school, and they opened their arms wide when I showed up in the middle of my sophomore year. I can still see them, standing at their lockers in the hallway on my very first day at that school.
On that first day (and for many years after that first day) I was traumatized. I can’t tell you what it’s like to leave one school on a Friday—where you are surrounded by people who look like you and who have known you since elementary school, and who know all the words to Le Freak and who can roller skate backwards—and then on Monday land in a school that looks more like something out of Beverly Hills 90210. I was swimming upstream, all the way. There was no blending in. There was no flying under the radar. There was only holding my head up and making the best of a terrible situation. And then, I rounded a corner, and there were Renee and Lisa. I could practically hear the angels singing overhead!
Eventually, over the years in that school, I figured out how to change the tone of my voice and carry myself and what clothes to wear so that I could fit in. I learned to walk the walk and talk the talk that got me through to graduation and on to college. I understood there would be no dating and there would be too many watermelon jokes to even bother keeping track. I learned that was their problem, not mine. I learned that calling something Christian doesn’t always make it so. I learned that, no matter what we’d like to believe about it, race matters. It did then. It does now. Maybe it won’t always.
Trust me, though. It wasn’t all bad.
After nearly twenty years of trying, last Friday, Lisa, Renee, and I got together for a girls’ weekend in Chicago. We have stayed in touch for all these years. They were both in my wedding. We were in Renee’s wedding. We’ve seen divorce and the loss of parents. We’ve raised children, we’ve built homes, and we have followed our callings. Renee is an artist, musician, and caregiver. Lisa is a college professor, working on her Ph.D. And, you know me.
When we got together in Chicago, we talked out high school and the miracle of our survival. But, Lisa and Renee also sang the praises of Mr. Olsen and his class on Matthew. It changed their lives, they said. And, of course, we have each other. If nothing else, our high school gave us that. And, after Lisa and Renee graduated, I became very good friends with a classmate of mine. Debbie and I went on to be college roommates, and she wrote a song that Renee sang at my wedding. Debbie learned how to do this black girl’s hair, and she was my hair stylist through our freshman year of college, before she transferred to a school in California.
Some of the best friendships are forged in the crucible. At least, that’s been the case for me. As women, our friendships are a lifeline—to sanity, to health, to confidence, to faith. We need each other and, when we are together, we are better because of it.
“So,” H asked me when I called him from the road on my way back home from Chicago yesterday, “what did you guys do?”
“Well,” I answered. “We talked. A lot.” And, that is what we did. But it was more than that. I can’t put the rest of it into words, but I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about. You have friends who know your story and who can trace the golden thread that runs through it. You have friends who can sit in a room together in complete silence and not be the least bit concerned about that. You have friends who ask the questions that matter the most and then give you space for whatever the answer may be.
That school we went to is still there. The population is now 35% black, Renee told me the other day. That makes me smile. It makes me feel a little bit like we were trailblazers, and we didn’t even know it. It makes me pray that teachers have learned to step in and step up when the wrong joke is told the hallways or in the classroom. I makes me hope that we really might be moving in a good direction. But, I’ve also heard the donors to the school have shifted their giving elsewhere. I’ve heard talk that indicates the board is looking to follow the trend and move out to where the neighborhoods look more like things did when I landed at that school on that Monday so many years ago. Maybe it’s just talk. You never know until you know.
In Chicago, Lisa, Renee, and I laughed until we thought we might get ourselves in trouble. I thought for sure the hotel manager was going to come and tell us to quiet down. “They probably put you guys on a floor where no one else was around, ” H said. He’s probably right.
We walked all over Chicago, and I ate the most wonderful gelato I’ve had in a very long time. There was deep dish pizza, and there was the Navy Pier, where we lost count of the wedding parties that passed us by. We fell back into our old roles, with Lisa leading us through the streets and me following her with dreamy eyes as I took in the sights, and Renee breaking into song every now and then. We waded out into Lake Michigan and then, we found a bench beneath a tree and across from the ticket booth for Chicago’s Architectural Tours, and we sat there for at least two hours. We sat there and talked and we looked at people and I couldn’t get over how lucky I was to have met these two women. When I look at them, I can still practically hear the angels singing overhead.
Some questions for you: Who are your lifeline friends? Do you have friends from high school, or earlier, with whom you still keep in touch? What friends have gotten you through some of your most difficult experiences in life? What do you think makes women’s friendships different from other kinds of friendships?
This year, Women of Faith could be the perfect opportunity to gather up some of your girlfriends and spend a weekend together. And, since I mentioned Oprah up there, why don’t I go ahead and give away two tickets?!?! Yep. For free. Simply Tweet about this post and giveaway, or share on Facebook, and leave me a message below, telling me where to contact you, should you win. I’ll announce a winner on Friday. Thanks!