Hardly anyone writes thank you notes anymore. But there are two I’ve been meaning to send. And I’ve learned to identify the feeling inside that knows when it’s not okay to send an email or text. I know there are people who say it doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t think that’s true. What’s true is that it’s easy to stop remembering what matters.
I was 23 when I taught my first beginning adult dance class. It was an effort and a half to keep myself from moving too fast, but I always enjoyed the challenge of it. For recital, I chose music slow enough for students with less experience to gracefully make their way through.
Except, clearly, it was still too fast.
Two of my students, Leslie and Chen, were the best sports and the worst ... well, the only good thing you could say about their technique was that they tried. I choreographed a simple sequence for them, cross walks in a circle, but who was I kidding? It would be cute for children to do this, but it was 50/50 whether people would love adults for trying, or drop their heads in pity.
As recital drew nearer, Leslie and Chen’s smiles tightened to mirror what they were feeling inside. When I asked if they’d run ticket sales at the door instead of performing, I could tell they were as relieved as I was. “We’re all best at something,” Leslie said with her arm around Chen’s shoulders.
One evening I heard Leslie say to Chen, “You say she’s your friend, but when I hear you talk to her, you don’t even sound like yourself.” It was such an intimate yet dicey thing to say, I remember turning my back to give them their privacy.
“What do you mean?” Chen said.
“Like when you said you thought Aaron (the only man in class, and proudly gay) was weird, just because she thinks so, when you don’t even feel that way. You love Aaron.”
“I don’t like to make her mad.”
“So what if she does get mad, if it’s how you really feel? At this age, you decide one of two things, to tell the truth the way you see it. Or tell hers.”
I didn’t know if Leslie was referring to Chen’s mother, sister, daughter, or friend, but I guess I no longer needed to know.
“I’m not like you. I don’t need to be right all the time.”
“No, but does that mean you need to be invisible?”
Chen walked away. A few seconds later, she turned back to say, “You coming?” But her voice was warm when she said it. I have a photo of them taken at recital. Chen’s arms are clasped around Leslie’s back. She is peeking out from under Leslie’s right shoulder and they’re both laughing. The look on their faces told me things about friendship I was just beginning to understand: that there is dependable honesty between friends, if we are lucky.
I suppose there are some conversations you never forget, and don’t ever want to. Leslie and Chen prepared me for a lifetime of risky truth-telling, one of the most difficult demands of all on a friendship. In that sense, they were my teachers.
What’s lovely is that I get to thank them. Pen to paper. Next to nothing on my part, but it matters.
MARY LOU SANELLI is a poet, speaker and author of nonfiction. Her collection of essays, “A Woman Writing,” is available from Aequitas Books. She can be reached at www.marylousanelli.com.