Location: Lexington, Massachusetts
It is a good thing I was an outgoing kid who did not mind being the new kid, because my dad uprooted the family my junior year of high school to move us to Massachusetts for the year. He took advantage of a sabbatical year the Foreign Service offered him to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, so I attended Lexington High School for one year. My junior year. When I look back on that, moving to a new (very competitive and cliquey) high school for just one year, the most pivotal in terms of college, I am amazed it worked out as well as it did. Even though I did not graduate from Lexington High School (nor from any high school, for that matter!) and I was only there for one academic year, I met two of my dearest friends there. I will forever be grateful to that school and that year for bringing Jim Crawford and Nikki Levin into my life.
Nikki and I had several classes together, and she stood out because she excelled at all of them. (As in breaking the curve kind of smart. As in left and right brain kind of smart. As in only missing one question on her SATs kind of smart.) She is one of the most intelligent and learned people I know but she is also one of the most modest people I know. You will never hear her pontificating on things just to prove she knows them or lauding her many degrees from Harvard, MIT, and the University of California San Francisco Medical School. She is now a dermatologist at UMass and is very accomplished professionally (teaching, lecturing and serving as a mentor to other doctors as well as being an excellent one herself) but what continues to distinguish Nikki is the way she comports herself in her personal life. She is one of the most selfless and kind individuals I know, someone who always takes the high road when many of us would be sorely tempted to go low (with Yours Truly at the front of the line.) She has endured more than her fair share of bumps (a divorce, the unexpected death of her children’s father, and a mother with dementia) with patience, thoughtfulness and a remarkable equanimity.
Nikki’s family became one of my surrogate families while I was in college (and my folks were living in Africa) and Nikki and I lived together in my first post-college apartment. We have attended each other’s weddings, been there for each other during rough times (her divorce, my cancer) and watched each other raise amazing kids. In many ways, she is everything I am not – quiet, introverted, patient, meticulous – and we often chuckle at how differently we each navigate the world. But there is a rock solid friendship and love at the core of our differences that has seen us through many decades and life changes and I am so grateful to know this excellent human being and count her among my friends.
Jim and I met through our mutual love of theatre. Acting in school productions was not just a fun outlet for me, but turned out to be a great way to quickly make friends when you don’t know anyone at your new school. Jim and I were both cast in Lexington High School’s spring musical, No, No Nanette (I was wisely given the role of the maid who does not sing) and we became good friends. We stayed in touch while I was an exchange student in France the following year (no small feat given that this was before email and cell phones and the internet) and then our friendship was cemented into a life-long one when we both ended up at Brown University. Jim’s family also adopted me and their home became my de facto pit stop on my way to and from Brown. Jim visited my family too, spending a summer with us in Zaire (now the Congo) and we traveled to Switzerland to visit my relatives on the way home, all very bonding experiences.
The summer after we graduated from college, I was visiting Jim on Cape Cod when he told me that he was dating a man. As I write this, it is amazing to me how far we have come on this front because that would not be a big deal today but it took a lot of courage back then. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic when homophobia was rampant. Over the years, I have seen many of the strides that we have made on LGBTQ rights through the prism of Jim’s life. We attended his wedding to his wonderful husband, Brooks, before the legal right was finally extended to same sex couples. When Jim and Brooks adopted their son, I watched them become the amazing parents they are and that I knew they would be. They are both paragons of decency and mindfulness in their relationship with their son and with each other, and they are whom I describe and defend whenever anyone dares question a non-traditional family.
Jim is also someone who has served as a great role model for following your passion and forging a career and a life in the arts. He has continued acting (and just completed a run of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Nashville Repertory Theatre) but also shares his love of theatre and the experience he has amassed over three decades of being a professional actor as a tenured professor at Sewanee University. He has been a great resource to my girls who are trying to navigate a life on stage, not just with concrete advice but by modeling how to find a path that works for you. Our friendship is one that can go months without a call or text but then pick right up where we left off. It is one I cherish, both for the memories of all we have experienced together and for the way we are connected today.
Lexington High School may not have given me a diploma, but they gave me something far more valuable. I am so grateful to have met Nikki and Jim back then and I am so happy they are still part of my life. It is a great reminder that every connection counts and you never know what a chance encounter or a brief overlap can lead to In your life.