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18 Strong

Thirty years ago, a group of eighteen bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people donned caps and gowns and spread our wings, ready to take on the world.

Some of us flew to far off lands:  Miami, Hawaii, and North Carolina.  Others stayed closer to home, the allure of small-town living anchoring them firmly in place.

We’ve lived a lot of life during the past three decades.  We’ve gotten married, raised families, crafted careers, loved on grand babies, and even, for a lucky one or two, retired.

We’ve had a lot of personal ups and downs.  Many of us have lost mothers and fathers – parents who not only raised us but were integral to every other classmate’s upbringing.  When you hail from a small town, everyone knows everyone, and you’re always at someone else’s house being fed and loved on.

We’ve watched, from afar, as classmates have faced challenges:  physical, emotional, and relational.  It’s par for the course in life.

Despite the changes we’ve faced as we’ve gotten older, one thing has stayed the same – our love for one another.

I think I can speak for every one of my classmates when I say that this love has been especially meaningful this past week as we received the sad, sad news that we had lost one of our own.

Our friend, Angela, went to be with Jesus early Tuesday morning.

She fought her battle with cancer bravely and with one of the most positive attitudes imaginable – a testament to the kind of person she was.

Our hearts are devastated, and the sense of loss is keen.

Even though I had not seen Angela since we graduated, my heart is tender as memories of our time together have been rushing to the surface of my mind.

I moved to our small town in April of my 4th grade year, went to school in a bigger town the next year, and then started at our private school in the 6th grade.

By then, nearly everyone in the class had been together since kindergarten.  Angela’s mom, Ms. Dolly, was THE kindergarten teacher in the town.  It was a tight-knit group.

As I began learning the ways of small-town schooling, I quickly noticed how sweet Angela was.  She was tiny, with long brown hair that she always wore in a side ponytail, and a soft voice.

She was a busy girl with dance lessons and cheerleading practice.  Her partner was the tallest gal in our class, Beth.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the girls gave gifts to one another.  This was something new to me.  We never did this in the schools I attended before.

Angela was artsy.  She could draw anything, and her writing was beautiful.  I still have the plate she made for me that first or second year.

I’ve moved a LOT over the last thirty years; this plate has traveled with me everywhere.  In fact, I wouldn’t even let my kids eat on it when they lived at home because I didn’t want it to get messed up.

It is a link to my past – maybe silly to some people but important to me nonetheless.

Because Angela lived in a small town ten minutes away from my small town, I didn’t see her much in the non-school hours.  I do, however, remember the day she invited me to attend an Auburn basketball game.  Her dad was taking her, and she wanted a friend to go with her.  I think either her brother or sister was a student there at the time.  It was the first time I’d been invited to an event like that, and I remember how excited I was.  We had wonderful seats – low and at one end near the basketball goal.  It was a magical afternoon.

True to form, we both changed as we grew into our adolescent skins.  I remember the August she came back to school with acrylic nails, short hair, and MAKEUP.  Y’all, this girl had grown up over the summer, and it took some getting used to!  Back in the day, nobody wore acrylic nails.  One thing I learned is that changing how you look on the outside doesn’t mean that you’re a different person on the inside.  That was Angela.

10th or 11th Grade Prom

I don’t remember a lot of specific interactions with her our last couple of years in school.  I know that sounds awful, but y’all, this gal is getting older and time has a way of smudging the edges of memories.

I do, however, vividly recall one evening when we went to an under-18 club.  I drove, we partied, cleanly of course, and then headed home.  South Alabama is really just a network of two-lane country roads with the occasional highway thrown in for good measure.

I got lost and, having absolutely no sense of direction and essentially no street lights to guide me, crossed over one of these highways (four solid lanes) without even pausing at the stop sign that I never saw.

God was watching out for us that night, let me tell you, because that highway was devoid of cars at that moment in time.  We didn’t realize what had happened until I turned around to go back and then saw the sign.  It was scary, to say the least, but Angela laughed it off.  I’m not sure if she ever rode anywhere with me again, though.


I lost track of her after graduation, but others in the class were good about keeping me posted on some of the happenings in her life.  Some were quite devastating, while others were incredibly uplifting.

Last fall, our little group got together; Angela had come to town, so they gathered at a favorite restaurant from back in the day.

I wish I’d been able to attend, because the pictures show what a wonderful time everyone had.

You’d never know that this sweet girl lost her precious mama the summer before and that she, herself, was fighting a terrible illness.

Just look at Angela’s smile in each photo.  I can look back through old yearbooks and see the same expression in every picture.

I’m the only girl missing from the group photo below.

I saw a picture that someone posted a few days ago.  It showed Angela in a hospital bed, hair done up in French braids, bright smile on her face despite the medical equipment around her.  She was radiant.

My heart is hurting as I type this, the knowledge that her husband, young daughter, and other family and friends are saying their final see you laters to her during this afternoon’s funeral.

Though she is no longer in pain and has been reunited with others who have passed on before her, it’s still hard.

Her loss is sobering.

It is a reminder of how precious friendships are, no matter the years that pass.

The day after Angela passed away, we learned that our former math teacher had also entered heaven.  Ms. Lyon was 100 years old; she’d retired the year we graduated.

Our little group has been chatting via Facebook Messenger, and the sweet memories we have been sharing over the last few days have been priceless.

I remember being eighteen and so ready to get out of Dodge.

Our chats have made me wistful for days gone by, and I wish I could tell my younger self to not be in such a hurry to leave.

As I have watched the interactions between my own students this week – especially the spirited (ahem) ones, I have been taken back to a simpler time, when my biggest worry was wondering which word parts Ms. Warr was going to ask for on her notorious vocabulary tests or if I was going to use the correct formula on Ms. Marilyn’s chemistry exams.

I remember the days of Christy dragging me around as I held onto a mop (oh the stupidity of youth), Toby coming up with the craziest antics, and the girls literally helping the boys pass English every year.

Every Friday night when I attend my own school’s football games, I am invigorated by the sounds of the cheerleaders, the roars of the crowd, and the pounding of cleats as they rush down the field.  Our boys could play some football, let me tell you.

It’s sensory overload, but it’s the good kind – the type that sends me back to when we were 18 strong.

We played hard, we fought fiercely, but ultimately we loved deeply.

We will always feel like a piece of our hearts is missing.  I am thankful that we have the assurance of heaven – that we will get to see our sweet Angela again one day – that we will one day catch up on our lives from all of the years spent apart.

Rest up, precious Angela, for a grand reunion will greet you one day when the Class of ’88 becomes eighteen once again.

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