One of the most memorable and influential people in my life was Mrs. Raboy. She was my second grade teacher. Unlike most of the other teachers at SC Elementary School she was not warm or outgoing. She was older than most, very strict, and gave a lot of homework which she expected to be turned in on time and done to the very best of your ability. She had one priority that was made crystal clear to all of us: every day that we spent in class we were to learn one new thing. It did not have to be the same thing for each of us, as long as it was something that we found exciting. She taught us that it was good to be smart, in spite of what others might do to make fun of us; how to research, prepare and study. How to think.
One of the tools she used to insure our cooperation was the dreaded Surprise Test. We never knew what the topic would be. We had to know how to put bits and pieces of information together, form an opinion and present it in a convincing way. The best were read aloud to the class by the author who was lavished with praise. I was frequently one of those, and I was proud, loved the attention, and wanted to do even better. Mrs. Raboy gave me confidence and taught me to trust my judgement. And so, I have never been afraid to test my knowledge or to think for myself.
This time I had not done my research, prepared or studied. I was not expecting a Surprise Test. I should have known it was coming. There were rumors about it. And soon enough, samples of the test began to appear, followed by articles and TV interviews. Suddenly it was my turn. I had to take The Friendship Test.
I am not a person who has many friends. As a child I had one or two at a time, and it has been the same for most of my adult life. Co-workers, whose companionship I enjoyed, filled the emptiness. I was never comfortable with vulnerability or intimate sharing. But once I retired I found myself longing for relationships that were deeper and more meaningful. It was not easy and it took a long time, but I finally found a small group of people who were more than just colleagues or casual acquaintances. They were family. I felt safe. I thrived in their warmth and acceptance. I ventured out further and made a few newer friends, being careful to abide by the saying “Make new friends, but keep the old…”. Each relationship brought a wonderful mixture of the familiar and the strange. There was an underlying sense of commonality that made it easy to form the initial bond. We might be the same religion, or have grown up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, or enjoyed the same lifelong learning class. At times in our adult lives we may have taken different paths. Some chose to stay home and raise families. Others worked outside the home as well. Many were actively involved in volunteering or religious organizations. I was the only one who was childless by choice. But as older women, we all seemed to have reached a point in our life journeys where we shared the same world views and similar, if not identical, political views as well. It was this communal experience that formed the foundation of our friendships and allowed us to explore our differences, sharing and considering new ideas and activities. I assumed the same pattern would continue as I grew bolder and reached out to others.
We all know about the danger and foolishness of making assumptions. I had forgotten.
I met JB in my Torah class. We sat next to one another and after a time began to chat. She had a wonderful sense of humor and just the right amount of sarcasm. She loved to travel as do I. She loved the beach. Me too. She lived only a few blocks away. She even had bird feeders and pretty flowers in her yard. Check. We were off to a good start. And before long, we decided to take a Laughter Yoga class together. We also discovered that we both enjoyed posting on Facebook. Not just the usual friends and family pictures, but articles that caught our attention, places we had visited and events we attended, cartoons and silly, sweet things. We decided to become Facebook “friends”, and did so just a few days before we were to meet up for Yoga.
I went to her page. Great photos! I looked at her posts. OMG! Who was this woman? She had posted not just the interesting things I had expected, but a number of political articles as well. Things that made my blood boil. Commentaries by people I despised. Opinions that were exactly the opposite of mine, but obviously as strongly held. I was stunned! It never occurred to me that we would not have the same point of view. Perhaps some minor differences, but certainly not polar opposites! I was clearly a liberal, believed in the power and necessity of the government to help protect and lift up people, read the New York Times, watched Lester Holt and Chuck Todd. I was certainly left of center, although open to moderate compromise.She was clearly a Conservative, believed that the less government the better, hated regulatory actions, read Breitbart, watched Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. She was far right. How could I possibly be friends with a person like that?
Over the next few days we continued our relationship on Facebook. I posted articles extremely critical of the administration and wrote opinion pieces as well. She posted hers. We made no comments about the articles. But we hit the like button frequently when we enjoyed the photos and stories of family events, nature sites, cartoons, and a multitude of other things we found we had in common. In those few days, using Facebook as our autobiographies, we came to learn a lot about one another. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. It was obvious that we were equally repulsed by the others point of view politically. The feelings were intense and lasted long after the sharing ended.
Then came the evening of our first class. What delicious irony! Laughter Yoga! Could I giggle with someone who loved Trump and his policies? Could she achieve a meditative state with a Bernie Sanders devotee? I arrived first, nervous and uncomfortable. She arrived a few minutes later. We hugged awkwardly. “I read your Facebook page every day”, she said. “I read yours too”, I replied. There was a moment of silence. “How about if we agree to not talk about politics”, I asked. “That’s fine with me”, she answered. And we didn’t. A few minutes later we were laughing as the class danced around the room, singing “ho, ho, ha ha ha”. A sort of mantra we did each week. It was ridiculous and fun. We learned that we were the kind of women who could let go and just enjoy! Afterwards, we decided to go out to a local diner for a late night dessert. Perusing the menu, JB asked the waitress if they had waffles and ice cream. Wow! I love waffles and ice cream but had not had it in years. We were both disappointed to learn it was not on the menu and proceeded to order pie a la mode instead. Yummy, but not the same. JB vowed to find a place that served it for our next week’s gluttonous adventure. We talked for two hours, sharing childhood tales and adult travails. It was a terrific evening.
As the days went on we continued our Facebook interactions. We still used the like button for some posts, did not bother responding to others and had a number of stomach turning reactions to several. There were times when, reading her posts, I felt like we lived on different planets. And at the end of each day, I found myself unsettled. What did this new friendship say about me and my commitment to my values? What would it take to pass the Friendship Test? Was it graded on a curve? Could I opt for an incomplete?
It was then that I started to pay closer attention to the stories that were becoming more frequent at places like the community center, synogogue, casual meetings and classes. Stories about long standing relationships that ended over a hateful argument about politics. Families no longer able to share a meal or go to a party because of policy differences that seemed unbridgeable. Even weddings cancelled and divorces initiated! Houses of worship and schools began to have discussion groups about how to handle the growing divide. Cable News shows and local newspapers made it a regular topic. Pressure was mounting it seemed. Choose your side! Don’t talk to the enemy!
I decided to share my concern with a friend whose opinion I respect. She and her husband are staunch liberals, active in numerous groups, generous donors and openly hostile to the new President. They are also highly educated, thoughtful people who are kind and not given to hateful rhetoric. I described my situation and asked what she would do. She seemed astounded that I found it a difficult choice. J, her husband, would not even consider a conversation, let alone friendship, with a person who supported President Trump, she said. Nor would she. Without knowing anything about the person other than their politics, they were deemed unworthy and even evil! I was stunned.
That night, I began to write in my journal. It always helps me to sort things out. And I decided to channel Mrs. Raboy. What would she tell me to do?
- Gather your information. Use a variety of sources.
- Make certain you know what you want to learn and how
- you will use it.
- Form your opinion using your head, heart and gut.
- Once you have reached your conclusion, honor it.
Later that week, JB and I met up at Laughter Yoga. Once again, it was great fun. Afterwards, she told me she had called around and found a diner that served Waffles and Ice Cream. The waffles were huge, warm and fluffy. We had gigantic scoops of two flavors of ice cream on them. We talked, enjoying each other’s company. We did not discuss politics. I had taken the Friendship Test. And after a careful consideration of the results, I had made my decision. I was a woman with strongly held convictions and values. And JB and I were friends.