After telling my neighbor that we had to put my roommate’s dog to sleep, and after he asked me how much that cost, and after I steered the conversation back to the more suitable subject cancerous masses, I turned to leave. I was eight feet away, walking in wedges through the hilly, grassy, slightly damp front yard when my neighbor called after me, “Hey. Don’t ever change, Katie. I like you just the way you are.”
I’ll call this neighbor “The Professional.” He is a professional, as he told me the first time I met him, and as he told my roommate Morgan the first time he met her, and as he told our neighbors when they moved in across the street. The Professional’s wife, he made certain to point out, is also a professional (though I don’t believe she works). But they are both professionals.
On the surface, The Professional’s parting words seem nice. He likes me the way I am, and wants me to know that. He’s a bit of a picky (and prickly) person, so I understand that from his perspective, he was giving me a compliment. He was trying to make me feel good. He did the opposite. Let’s break down his message.
The Professional has determined that the version of me which he sees (definitely a limited view, as we aren’t close and I don’t particularly like him) is the best possible version of me. At 27, I can’t grow or change or learn in any way that would better who I am or improve my happiness or life satisfaction; I’ve peaked.
The Professional claims to be a Christian, as do I. The churchy way of saying “make me a better person” is “make me more like Christ.” To the very churchy, this process is known as sanctification and is an ongoing, lifelong process. At best, my neighbor’s admonition to never change shows a gross lack of imagination. At worst, he’s insulting me (or possibly committing heresy) by saying I’m the most like Christ now that I will ever be.
Oh, he doesn’t see it that way. Of course not! He means this to be a compliment. So did all the people who wrote similar platitudes in my yearbooks. The Professional probably isn’t really thinking about what he’s saying. But his message also implies that his opinion is worth so much, I shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it (which I won’t unpack here, but Urgh).
Plenty of people over the years have told me “don’t ever change” or “stay sweet”. I probably even wrote it in some yearbooks myself, submitting to the crowd even while I felt uncomfortable doing so.
Which is why I don’t plan to go to my ten-year high school reunion next year.
In the gel pen scribbles of my yearbooks, I see people who meant well but had no idea I didn’t like many of them. They genuinely thought the version they saw of me at 15 and 17 was the best person I could be. They applauded my sweetness and meekness, even though I didn’t feel like I was either. (There isn’t anything wrong with sweetness, that premier Southern virtue. But it isn’t all I am. Nor is meekness a problem, extolled even by Jesus in Matthew 5:5. I just wasn’t the least bit meek on the inside; I was screaming.)
I am such a happier, more confident person now. And I don’t know that most of the people I went to school with would see these changes as positive. I don’t want to watch a former schoolmate’s face crumble into mere politeness when they discover a stranger behind my nametag. Nor do I want their expectations and disappointments to make me feel small again, so painfully uncomfortable, like I once did each day in their company. I don’t want to feel like I am the same person I was then, or that I should be.
When I made my way inside after waving off The Professional’s words, wedge heels damp but ankles untwisted, I shucked my bags off my arms and sat down at the dining table by my roommate. Morgan was being an excellent adult and budgeting for the month, but stopped to listen to me complain about the conversation. I felt her sympathy as she pointed out The Professional’s well-intended ignorance. Most important, she served as a touchstone by treating me no differently than she had that morning. No matter what anyone else says about or believes of me, she knows and values who I am.
I’m not married. I don’t have a husband I could take with me to a high school reunion, someone who would remind me as we drove away that I’m not less than I was in high school; I’m more. And I know myself. I know I would feel that way. Even if I were married, I don’t think it’d be a good idea for me to go to this reunion.
So the weekend of the reunion, I’ll find something fun to do and will pray for each person I knew in high school who treated me kindly. And I’ll also pray for those who I didn’t like in high school, who didn’t listen and who bullied. I’m so much better, so much happier than I was 10 years ago. My goal is to keep moving that direction, no matter what my neighbors say.