I had received a call out of the blue from someone I’d not seen in 45 years. She told me about a planned high school reunion for the class of ’74 from Jordan Matthews High in Siler City, NC. She took my address and promised to send info. When I got the invite, I was curious. When I decided to go, I was nostalgic. But when I hit the “Reply” button, my next sensation was fear.
At first, I thought this was about my memory. Someone with a semi-familiar face would walk up and say, “Well hello, Roger!” And then I’d panic, unable to recover the right name. I’m terrible with folks that I see every week in church; how will I do with people I’ve not seen for 45 years? This could be embarrassing.
But a second, even deeper fear followed. What if I walk up to some old friend and start in on a story and they don’t remember me? I pictured them, squinting, re-reading my name tag and searching for some clue as to who this yammering old guy was. I imagined myself saying, “Well, this punch sure is good…” and then slowly drifting away.
But Jean and I made the trip anyway. We circled the old hometown, drove past the school and then went downtown to the reunion site. As we walked up to the door, I forcibly relaxed my shoulders, slowed my pace, and sauntered in with a I’m-totally-cool-in-this-situation look. This felt familiar, because it was the same posture I tried to adopt walking into high school for the first time. And it was the same lie. I was not totally cool with the situation. I was afraid and the fear was as fresh as that first day.
Through the windows I could see 20-30 people milling about. I searched for someone familiar, looking for safe passage amidst the sea of faces. I wanted to find a haven where I wasn’t the center of attention, but also not drifting alone either (hmmm….this is still how I enter a room).
I locked in on the registration table. Fortunately, I knew the woman behind it. So I said, “Hi Pam!” It felt good to speak. I added, “Roger Edwards, and my wife Jean.” She found my name on the list and I breathed a bit. I was in. I moved down the table, picked up a Sharpie and wrote my name in bold letters on the name tag. But the ink didn’t take so well to the paper and the letters looked blotchy and weak. This bothered me, but other people were accumulating behind me, so I went with it and tried to peel the tag off, but couldn’t find the edge. The man behind me had his already on, and I paused long enough to warmly shake his hand.
“Nice to see you!” I said in a convincing tone.
“Thanks, Roger,” he said, looking at the tag still in my hand. Then he confessed that he was there as the spouse of one of my classmates.
“Oh,” I said and moved quickly away from the table.
I was still urgently trying to find the edge of that name tag, all while glancing to and fro for someone, anyone that I might recognize who would hopefully remember me. I needed grounding, a place to belong. Or at least a place to stand other than the middle of the room with an unaccomplished name tag.
Greg and Pam walked in. Perfect! I graduated with Pam and had grown up in church with Greg. I waved and announced my name as I approached, relieved to see a look of recognition on their faces. Oh joy! Harbor in the storm! I pulled Jean into the circle, introduced her and began a little round of visiting. I did enjoy seeing them, but was more aware of how relieved I was to not be floating alone.
As we talked, I settled down a little and used the moment to reconnoiter the room. Yes, there was Cindy. There was Mike. And Jannice. Okay. Yes, there were a few familiar faces that I couldn’t quite put a name to, but I was getting my bearings (if only I could I get that name tag on). But now, I saw some islands out there that I could swim to, so I did. Jean was great, cheerfully meeting people she didn’t know. She knew I was trying to find my way. I maneuvered around the room, using the walls to minimize trouble. I noticed that everyone else had been able to get their name tags onto their shoulders. “Why can’t I unpeel this nametag…?”
I stopped at Sheralyn’s group. We laughed and hugged and I met her husband and she met Jean. Reggie (sports hero) tapped me on the shoulder, smiled and shook my hand. I was feeling more and more “in.” Then we started telling stories, which anchored me even more.
“Do you still have that convertible VW Beetle?” I asked Cindy.
Someone added, “I remember being in the back seat with the top down and Ollie (a St. Bernard) drooling all over me!”
We laughed. I hadn’t thought of Ollie in years.
After several minutes, I got more serious about my name tag. I felt I needed it. Everyone else had one. Finally, I realized why I couldn’t unpeel it. I’d picked up a discarded backing instead and written my name on it. I turned red, looked furiously around to see if anyone had seen my mistake and then hurried back to the table for a real one. When I accomplished the new tag and was officially labeled, I remembered how many times I’d made “mistakes” in high school and lived in sheer dread of being singled out and mocked. Like the time I knocked over a drink in the cafeteria. Or walked into an open locker door. During one basketball game, the coach finally remembered me and sent me in. I raced onto the court, lined up to rebound a foul shot and everything stopped. The refs were staring, the crowd was laughing, and my bench was yelling something to me. I had forgotten to take off my warm-up jacket.
In high school, I wanted so much to make a name for myself. I wanted my coach to call on me and for the crowd to cheer my name. I wanted friends to yell out across the cafeteria for me to come over and for girls to giggle at the mention of me. I wanted to be someone. I needed to be someone. But now I was OK; I had a name on my chest. So I walked back to my classmates, feeling better and more secure.
That night at the reunion, I realized this hunger has never gone away. It still drives my behavior, much like it did 45 years ago. Why does it matter so much to be recognized? Why does it matter so much when someone lights up upon seeing you? Why do I want someone to remember a story about me? To tell a story about me?
My classmates were very kind to me that night. I was only there for about three hours, yet I drove away lifted and strangely happy. I was surprised by how much it meant to me, how deeply I was affirmed. But perhaps my feeling isn’t such a big surprise. It is how we are made, after all.
God placed inside of us a “name-need.” It is a characteristic (perhaps the characteristic) of being human. To thrive as a person, we must be personally known. This name-need is referenced throughout Scripture. God knew us in our mother’s womb, the Psalmist tells us. Paul says that “He chose us before the foundation of the world.” God named Adam and Eve. Jesus called Zacchaeus by name, but not only him; the Great Shepherd knows His sheep and calls them all ‘by name.’ Our names are written in the Book of Life.
When history ends, Revelation 3 tells us that we will receive a white stone with our new name written upon it, known only to us and God. Thus our identity, our name-need, will be fulfilled. Recognition breathed us into existence; affirmation will be our eternity. To be recognized, endorsed, and loved is our destiny. And what will we do with such a gift? We will cast our crowns of existence down to His feet in recognition of the God who loves us. And then the stories begin.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.
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