From Kindergarten through 12th grade I attended Phil-Mont Christian Academy, a small Philadelphia suburban school whose mission states: …to provide an excellent academic education from a consistent Christian world-and-life view for the children in Christian families. There were 44 students in my graduating class. Over half of us, had been together since Kindergarten. Where Mrs. Smith warmly greeted us on that very first day and became our beloved surrogate mother every weekday between the hours of 8 am and 3 pm. Thirteen formative years is a long time to spend with the same daily faces. Faces that, to this day I adore. And faces that I recently got to spend time with.
One of my K-12 classmates, James spearheaded a text thread to connect us. James, whose easy smile, generous soul and flirtatious ways are still firmly intact even though his enviable full head of unruly tousled curls is not, suggested a party. He also suggested that it be at Tim’s house. Tim is also in the K-12 club. Tim married Amy, a girl who was not in our grade. But when your school feels like family, there is no class distinction. Tim and Amy raised their family on a bucolic property that lends itself to outdoor barbecues and late night bon fires. And so it was, that I had one of the best and memorable times I have had in what is now known as Life in The Time of COVID. Our gathering did not exceed social and government mandated acceptances. But for most of us, it was all we could do to not wrap each other up in our collective arms. My first grateful tear of the night was shed when Tim, before piling our plates with potluck, bestowed the blessing. In his heartfelt prayer he offered thanks to God for granting us selfless parents who were willing to make countless sacrifices (most of which we will never know) in order to provide what they deemed the best Christian education money could buy.
As my husband Chris and I arrived at the party, Jenny’s was the first face to greet us. Jenny is a fun-loving gifted athlete. But it’s her tender heart that led her to a career as a teacher for kids with special needs. Jenny’s time at Phil-Mont was sporadic, yet long enough for us to create a lifetime bond over having played softball together. Even though she viewed the sport as a serious pursuit, and I was more interested in where the victory celebrations would take place afterwards. Then there was Julie. Julie and I became fast friends that first year at school even though she was quiet and shy and had an upbringing surrounded by saddles and sailboats. My upbringing was connected to Northeast Philadelphia rowhomes and warring neighbors. Some of whom shot each other. But none of that mattered to our not yet fully developed, socioeconomically unaware 5-yr. old brains. So, the friendship stuck. Bill was at the party. Bill was our classmate who pulled a Mr. Kotter and was welcomed back as a teacher and coach at our beloved alma mater.
During dinner Chris and I sat with Dustin. A smidge socially awkward then. A smidge socially awkward now. In the most endearing of ways. Dustin is a scientist and works at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. In the vaccine department. Be kind to the people society deems to label. They are the ones changing it. We also sat with Bonnie. Bonnie didn’t join our tribe until high school. My husband asked her if she regretted transferring to Phil-Mont. No. In fact, she was the one who requested it. She got to the point where she no longer felt the need to accept the bullying of her former classmates at her former school and hoped there was another option. There was. Bonnie, kissed the bullies goodbye.
Throughout the night I answered the same 3 anticipated questions: 1. Can you still talk backwards? Yes. 2. Is your mom still obsessed with Elvis? Yes. 3. Are you still bitter about being cut from the cheerleading squad? YES!!! But the most questions went to Steve. Steve’s mom went back to school later in life to earn a degree in Education. Her first-year teaching was our first time in 5th grade. It was my favorite year. Steve’s dad was a hard-working truck driver. Steve became a doctor. His practice is in a prison. In Philly. Which I found intriguing. Most of the questions Steve answered that night were lobbed by me and my morbid curiosity. But the best question he answered was do you share your faith with your patients? Steve said that he strives every day to instill in his patients that they have value. That it doesn’t matter what they did (or didn’t do) to create their current life circumstance. Because no matter what, God created them. In His image. God loves them. God values them. They have worth. That’s good doctorin’. And good teacherin’.
My second grateful tear was when Steve shared a long-ago memory involving my mother. My mom is not in the best of health and is living out her remaining time with us in a nursing home. When I see her now, I forget there was a time when she was often the prettiest and most popular girl in the room. This was not lost on Steve as he reminded me of the night our 2nd grade class performed the O. Henry short story, The Ransom of Red Chief. Steve played Red Chief. And not to brag, but I was cast as Red Chief’s unnamed little sister, so there’s that. He went on to say how, after the play, my mom made such a fuss over him and his brilliant performance that for days, he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. That same smile was still hard to wipe off as he recounted the memory. The next time I see my mom, I’m going to tell her what Steve said.
It was Julie who spoke of all those who couldn’t make it that night. Like our friend Ron. Ron was Class President and the wunderkind of the school. Think Doogie Howser but with red hair and freckles. Ron responded to the texts by saying that he regrettably would not be able to join in the festivities. He would be in Maine celebrating his 22nd Wedding Anniversary. The past 6 of which, have been recognized by the State. When I read the responses to Ron, I don’t think I was ever prouder of my longtime friends as every text overflowed with Congratulations Ron! Wish you and Alan could be here!
My husband was hoping my friend and fellow classmate Kathy and her husband Scott would be in attendance as, over the years, Chris and Scott have developed a not-having attended Phil-Mont fraternal kinship. Kathy was (and still is) a beautiful blonde with an Osmond-esque smile and a chill California vibe. Kathy was also my rival for the affections of Jeff, the school heartthrob. Kathy won. Deservedly so. I did however manage to get a great big bear hug from John, my on-again off-again high school boyfriend, whom I should have treated better.
My friend Joe made it a point to sit and catch-up. Joe is married to Joyce, a fellow Phil-Mont grad and a gifted singer/musician/worship leader. Her brother Rob is the same and met with success in the world of Christian music. Joyce never bragged about having a famous brother. Just like Joe never bragged that his brother’s godfather is Bill Cosby. Joe doesn’t defend Mr. Cosby. But he does pray for him.
Margaret, Marisa and Shirley were there. The 3 Musketeers in school. The 3 Musketeers that night. Only Shirley’s still-to-this-day quick, loud and infectious laugh lets you know, this isn’t a clique. In fact, it never was. Because when you hear Shirley’s laugh it’s a siren call. To let you know, you’re invited. You’re included. You’re one of us. Pull up a chair. Have a laugh. Have a drink. Because we are the people who tolerated you at your worst. Celebrated you at your best. We loved you then. We love you now. To this I say, Thank-you Phil-Mont for providing an excellent academic education from a consistent Christian world-and-life view for the class of 1982.