I remember an experience I had in 9th grade P.E. This was the rare class I had with my best friend since kindergarten. But as fate would have it, this was also a class I shared with a longtime tormentor, the kind of person who’s always there when you drop your books in the hall and never misses the chance to announce it to the world, or the kind that always has special nicknames for you and the life-sustaining but otherwise inconvenient medical device you’ve got in your pocket. And if there’s one class you where you don’t want to run into your archnemesis every day, it’s the one with locker rooms.
There’s a particular interaction involving these parties that has stayed with me, and it’s not one I actually witnessed firsthand. I received the account from another associate later. This eyewitness told me how my tormentor, no doubt thinking he was about to score some major social points, broadcasted loudly that I was the biggest freak he had ever seen. I don’t think my tormentor realized that one of the kids in his audience was my best friend, or that he was one of the biggest dudes in the grade. He came to appreciate both very quickly. I’m told that my friend swiftly knocked my tormentor to the ground and told him to knock it off.
I won’t try to embellish the story or imply that there was this titanic brawl between the two of them, and as far as I remember Mr. Archer never even found out about the skirmish, if we want to call it that. Just the same, I recall seeing less of this tormentor after this episode. This came at a point in my life when I wasn’t really used to people, even people I counted on, speaking up for me. Moreover, this gesture came from a friend who I know also had his own issues socially, and one who I have often wished I had been nicer to. Though I never told this friend that I knew what he did, or what it meant to me, I remember this years later.
Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic, Stand By Me, has a similar, if more dramatic premise. Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, “The Body,” the film follows a writer reflecting on an experience he had with his best friends some thirty years before where the four of them went on a weekend long hike to find the body of a kid who was killed by a train.
The film is widely celebrated for the natural chemistry of the child actors and for its honest portrait of lost childhood. The film reveals how a person’s ultimate destiny can be shaped by things that happened to them long ago, even actions taken without thought for longevity. The kinship that our writer, Gordie, felt with his three best friends as a twelve-year-old shaped his life. He not only carries the memories of their interactions, but the trajectory of his life was also shaped by the time he spent with these friends.
There are only a few select moments in the film that are overtly emotional—moments that you’d expect to a person to cry thinking about decades later. Most of the film just tracks four kids arguing over what animal Goofy is. Yet even these mundane moments are framed as vital threads in the fabric of Gordie’s memory. Small moments like these are precious for the safety they signified for a group of kids denied sanctuary within their own community and even their own homes. Chapters of relative insignificance blend naturally with moments of more pronounced grandiosity, revealing the sanctity of life in all its phases.
Gordie’s recollection includes episodes like Chris pulling a foolhardy Teddy out of the path of an oncoming train. Even then, Chris is demonstrating the leadership qualities that no doubt came in handy when he became a lawyer, not only hoisting his friend out of the path of the train, but also talking him down after the fact. Perhaps Gordie recognized these qualities in Chris way back then, even if he did not appreciate them at the time and even if he did not get to see them fully developed. Perhaps. How many of us appreciate the mountains we climb or the kindness we share in the moment?
The tragedy is further underscored by the way Gordie appears alone in his mourning. The four of them have long fallen out of contact with one another by the time of Chris’s death. Teddy and Vern could be privately awash in their own recollections of their adventures with Chris and with each other, too scared to reach out to old friends for fear they might not return the bid for connection. Or, maybe the news of their friend’s death passed with little recognition at all. Moreover, we don’t know how long it had been since Chris himself gave thought to the friends of his childhood, if he ever appreciated how decades later his friend would still relive the nights they spent making smores together, or how his specific admonition to Gordie to chase his dream of being a writer would invariably shape the direction of his life.
Christian tradition teaches us that by small and simple things shall great things come to pass. This thought is often applied to the rise and fall of empires or the restoration of God’s word, but surely “great things” also covers a more personal sphere. By small overnight camping trips shall preteen outcasts discover that they actually can find and do deserve belonging. By simple words of encouragement shall untapped writers find the courage to tell their story.