Reprinted from a message to the class of 1983, by yours truly.
Valedictorian’s Update: “What we didn’t know”
You may remember that thirty years and a few months ago, on the HHS football field, I was privileged to give a short speech. (Maybe you remember it; maybe you don’t. You may have had other things on your mind that night. But I remember it, because, well, I had to do it.)
I said it was the end of an era for us. And it was. I thanked our parents, our teachers, and the community. And that was right.
But what you may not know is that it was not the speech I had planned to give. The school and district censored that one. It was too offensive.
You may remember me, if you knew me, as a girl who did extremely well in school. After all, that was why I got to give that little speech. What you may not know is why I did it. Living just around the corner from the Atascosita Country Club, I grew up in a beautiful home ravaged by poverty and abuse. I knew, quite simply, that a free ride to college was my only way out of a very bad situation. Straight A’s weren’t a matter of pride; they were a matter of survival.
I have since learned that abuse affects 1 in 4 American women. Every social class; every income level. Many of you have also experienced it, in varying ways, if the statistics are correct.
You may also remember me, if you knew me, as a religious person. You would be right. Through faith, and by the grace of God, we saw God move during our high school days. The Christian Student Union and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes banded together. We busted through high school cliques on purpose, making friends where barriers had been before. We saw hardened hearts melt; unbelievers we never thought would want to know God soften towards Him.
What you may not know, is that in 1999, at the age of 35, I became an atheist. I spent 7 long years questioning God, reality, everything. If that seems out of character, you need to know that the patterns of my childhood led me to an abusive church my junior year in college. By the time I figured out what was going on, I had dropped out of college and had 5 children—in 7 years. I was exhausted, depressed, and…yeah, abused. It can be embarrassing to admit. How does a smart girl end up as a doormat for a controlling pastor?
Depression doesn’t do it justice; in 1995 I began fighting for my sanity. Maybe you haven’t been there yet, but life can unbalance you. Especially if your early programming isn’t completely healthy.
The road back was complicated. I had to find out who I was, while my husband did the same. Miraculously, we stayed together. We had to undo the first 5 years of parenting our children, and find ways to empower them, to help them be healthier young adults than we had been. Had to find out why God lets bad things happen to sincere people.
And, on top of it all, I realized that my identity included finishing my dream of becoming a physician. My amazing spouse and kids put me through medical school, after a 5-year fight for sanity, which, by the grace of God, I achieved. (At least, I think so.)
So I’ve missed a few reunions. I was sort of busy; what with being a cult member, then depressed, and then a medical student…. It is so good to be here now. So wonderful to see everybody. I am grateful to be alive, to be with other people, to be sane.
Maybe your life hasn’t turned out exactly like you planned, either. If not, you are not alone. But there is hope. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned.” Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” But Romans 10:13 says that, “anybody who calls on the Lord will be saved.” I like that word. Anybody. Anybody can pray: Father, we do believe that Jesus died on the cross for us, that he rose again. We give you our lives, all over again. And we ask for your help.
Carrie Slaughter DeLeon reminded me, a few months ago, of another speech from high school. This one was from an election for freshman class officers. I’d like to paraphrase. If you give your life to Jesus, just like Scrubbing Bubbles, he’ll “do all the work, so you don’t have to!” And when you do, you’ll be so excited that “you’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…and so on.” But I digress.
Bruce Springsteen called high school the “Glory Days.” I disagree. At Humble High School, they were wonderful days. At home not so much. But whether your youth was good, bad, or mixed like mine, I believe with all my heart that our best days can still be ahead of us. It just keeps getting better, if we let him heal and help us, and lead us along the way.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Thank you for being my friends. Thank you for not pushing, in high school, when I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my family’s problems.
And most of all, I would like to say, right here, what I wasn’t allowed to say at our graduation in 1983. THANK YOU, JESUS, for all you have done to help and heal us.
Don’t stop believin’…
Karen VanMatre Smith, M Ed, MD
Wife of 25 years
Mother of 5
Member of the HHS Class of 1983