Who Are Your Friends?
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tracks a remarkable friendship between a 13 year-old white boy and a middle aged black man during pre-Civil War America. Both Huck and Jim are running away, and through much of the novel they are traveling together on the Mississippi River. Huck is running from his drunken, abusive father, and Jim is running from his master who has threatened to sell him down the river. Early in the novel Jim and Huck cross paths, and they end up traveling together and forming an unusual friendship.
Huck is a sensitive and empathic boy, and he loves Jim, but he is not immune to his culture's view of race. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Huck has a sense of superiority over Jim. However, as an innocent narrator, Huck's descriptions allow the reader to have a deeper understanding of Jim than Huck himself has. While Huck sees Jim as uneducated, the reader sees Jim as a noble, deeply principled, admirable and intelligent man, who is constantly teaching Huck even though Huck does not always realize it.
In an amazing scene early in the novel, Jim teaches Huck what it means to be a friend.
In this episode, a storm hits, and Jim and Huck are separated on the river. Huck is in the canoe and Jim is on the raft, and they try desperately to find each other in the storm, but the wind and rain separate the two friends and despite all their effort, they cannot find each other. Eventually, both fall asleep, Huck in the canoe and Jim on the raft, and when Huck awakens, he sees a black speck in the distance, paddles towards it, and finds Jim asleep on the raft. The raft is covered with branches and debris; it has clearly been through a terrible storm, and Huck impulsively decides to play a trick on Jim, so he lies down on the raft as though he has been asleep next to Jim the entire time.
We all know about these jokes among friends, that joke where you make a friend think something has happened and it has not really happened. Sometimes these jokes are not harmful and are truly funny, but sometimes the opposite is true. We all know the difference. The hard part is to know how to respond to that mean joke especially when it is passed off as "just kidding." When a friend says something truly mean to you and then passes it off as "just kidding" you are left in an impossible bind. Either you can stand up for yourself and look as though you cannot take a joke. Or you can say nothing. Either way, the mean-spirited prankster gets off scot-free and you are left feeling bad about yourself and wondering what is wrong with you when you cannot take a joke.
So back to this scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
When Jim awakens, he is ecstatic to see Huck. His words upon his awakening are indicative of his deep devotion to Huck. However, after all of Jim's hugging and kind words, Huck cruelly convinces Jim that the storm was not real and that it was all a dream. This is a cruel joke because he is making Jim look stupid.
Finally, Jim realizes the truth: that Huck has played a mean joke on him. At this point Jim makes an amazing statement about friendship. He says these words in dialect. I am not going to read them in dialect. Here is what Jim says:
"When I was all worn out with work and with calling you, I went to sleep, and my heart was almost broken because you were lost, and I didn't care anymore what became of me or the raft. And when I woke up and found you back again, all safe and sound, the tears came, and I could have gotten down on my knees and kissed your foot I was so thankful. And all you were thinking about was how you would make a fool of old Jim with a lie. That is trash, and trash is what people are who put dirt on their friend's head and makes them feel ashamed."
Huck learns in this moment the difference between harmless jokes and truly mean jokes, and he never plays a mean trick again. Huck says at the end of the chapter: "I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way."
So let me ask you: What kind of friends do you have? How do you know if your friends are real friends?
Real friends celebrate who you are. With real friends, you do not try to be something you are not. If your friends make you question who you are or affect your confidence in a negative way, then they are not your friends. Real friends help you feel confident with who you are, and they support your identity.
Another question to ask is: Are you your best self when you are with your friends? Or do they bring out the worst in you? If the people you hang around with bring out your best self, then they are your friends.
I have thought a lot about the definition of friendship over the years. To me, real friends are those people who you enjoy spending time with and are willing to tell you the hard truths when it is important for you to know them. When they do this, they show a respect and concern for you. They are willing to venture into an area that may be uncomfortable for them in order to help you.
We all have our own definition of friendship, and I would like you to think about your own friends and what you look for in friendship. Is it to be popular? Do you look for someone who understands you, or do you look for someone who is well liked and, by association, will make you popular?
When we enter a new community, we may feel overwhelmed by this new, large, social community. Some friendships may last, and some may not, and that is OK. Navigating the social world of middle school and high school can be tricky, but it can also lead to helping you understand yourself and what you value.
As we grow, we look for different qualities in our friends. Last spring I spoke to a graduating senior who marveled that his friends in high school were not the same group that he hung around with in middle school. As he moved into high school, he realized that his original group of friends did not help him be his best self; he realized that his original group of friends did not value what he valued, and he slowly moved away from that friend group. On graduation day, he said that this shift made a significant difference for him.
And here is my final question about friendship: What kind of a friend are you? Do you bring out the best in your friends? Do you care about your friends, or do you use them and then discard them when someone more popular comes along?
When my youngest daughter was in 4th grade, she moved to a new school. Initially, she became friends with a group of three girls in her grade. They were full of life, outgoing and fun, and she enjoyed this about them, but then she began to notice that these girls often had fun at the expense of other people, especially two friends of hers whom she had known before she started this new school. When she realized that these girls were, in fact, mean to a lot of people, she began to distance herself from them. They, of course, were furious because she added power to their group but, in the end, she did not like the way that they treated others, so she stopped associating with them.
I imagine that many of you have had to make difficult choices when it comes to friendship, but ultimately I hope that all of you will experience true friendship.
A few weeks ago, Rachel Simmons visited our campus and spoke to a number of you. I will end with her words on friendship:
"Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people stay for a while, and give us a deeper understanding of what is truly important in this life. They touch our souls. We gain strength from the footprints they have left on our hearts, and we will never EVER be the same."