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Compartment 14B

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Life lessons from older and wiser friends. Part I

2004-03-25 - 12:20 p.m.

Grad school and I did not get along. Oh sure, I logged the lab hours and left with the right to put letters after my name, but my Master’s was an excruciating slog. It wasn’t that the academics were hard – I’ve always been pretty gifted at that – it was that I found my new school to be a cold and unfriendly place. It was made even worse by the fact that I expected to love it. I’d always made friends easily. I had anticipated that it would be like going into any new social situation like school or camp or summer science school (geek alert, geek alert); sure the prospect seemed a bit scary ahead of time, but by the time a few weeks had passed you’d made new friends, settled in, were vaguely surprised that a few weeks earlier you hadn’t known these people and lived this way.

It was not like that.

My roommates were right-wing, stuck-up little princesses who complained volubly every time I cooked anything that involved onions. My fellow grad students were friendly but didn’t seem to actually need any more friends. A wedge had been planted between me and my boyfriend Steve, who I’d been with for 3 years when I started in September, and was pushing us inexorably apart. By the time two months had passed, I had lost over 10 pounds, and that wasn’t a time when I actually needed to lose any weight. It didn’t get better. Steve and I broke up. I got the flu. I eventually had it with that town and the people in it so I moved back to the town I did my undergrad in and commuted. I got a new boyfriend whose roommates didn’t like me. I spent a good chunk of my time trying to convince a good friend that life was worth living. I was exhausted and took the summer off.

Fall came and I decided to finish what I’d started. I went back and lived there to limit distractions. In between going to the lab and classes and working on my thesis, I escaped into novels, sometimes reading upwards of four thick tomes a week. I formed only one lasting friendship with someone I met in that town and she wasn’t a fellow student. In fact, she wasn’t even a true resident of the town at that time, but worked there during the week and on weekdays swapped living quarters with someone who lived next door to me but worked in Toronto.

Sherry was a woman ahead of her time and she opened my eyes to the fallacy of a lot of assumptions. She was closer to my mother’s age than mine and had a teenage son, Trevor. Though her life goals weren’t anything out of the ordinary – a house, a family – she was the first woman I’d met that hadn’t waited for a man, or even a partner, to come along and give her these things. Everything she did, she gave careful consideration to and planned thoughtfully. She didn’t make a lot of money but she always made what she earned really count. She wanted a house, she bought one and rented out a couple of the rooms to help pay off the mortgage. She wanted a child so she chose someone who she knew and cared about to be the father, but made sure he wouldn’t make future claims on the child. She wanted to travel so she saved up and when Trevor was five years old she took a year off and away they went to Europe and Africa. As an adult he still talks about that trip.

Sherry and her son have the closest parent-child relationship I’ve ever seen. Knowing that he’d benefit from a male influence in his life, she signed him up for the Big Brother’s program. When she decided to actually move to the town I met her in, she and Trevor went to each of the local high schools to check them out. When making an appointment for one of the visits the person at the school didn’t really get it,

“I’m not sure I understand why you need to come for a visit. Your son will go to whatever school serves the neighbourhood you’re moving to.”

“Yes, but we’re going to move to the neighbourhood of the school that Trevor wants to go to,” she explained.

“But people don’t do that.”

“Well, I do.”

To be continued tomorrow...

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