January 3, 2009
By Kerri Caldwell, Walpole, MA

I grew up in a perfectly abnormal atmosphere that handed me numerous opportunities to overcome serious obstacles in order to make me a better person. I received another challenge in my sophomore year of high school, but something about this one didn't feel the same. I knew it was different. It all started with the arrival of a new junior hockey team in my town, the Walpole Express. For some, the organization contaminated the town like the plague, but for me, it was like a breath of fresh air; one that made me feel like I could suddenly breathe easy.

It would be a lie for me to say that being criticized never made me uneasy, but this criticism didn't upset me like everyone expected. Instead, I laughed. Looking around at how judgmental everyone had been, and at the hostility they displayed, I was baffled. These boys were in no way different than the critics harassing them. Yes, they were living away from home on their own for the sole purpose of excelling in the sport they loved, but I found this commendable while others viewed it as almost crazy. In truth, they were no less than any other teenager attending my high school. I faced immense animosity from my peers because I had a differing attitude, but I learned to accept this because I had become a more welcoming person, and I liked that. Knowing how badly it felt to be alienated by people who thought they were better, I found it admirable that these boys could continue walking with their heads held high. We were all dealing with the same cruelties and it was comforting to know that we had each other. Together we stood about everyone's negativity.

It was obvious that I was almost entirely alone in my decisions to embrace these new faces. I had always been taught to stand up for what I believed in even if it meant standing alone, which it sometimes did. I was overcome with fascination as I learned not only where these boys came from, but who they were. I noticed the unconditional love they had for the game they played, and my interest in hockey as well as different kinds of people skyrocketed. I was eager to learn, and even more eager to explore the places from which they came. In most cases it was the southern U.S. They told me that I was a southern belle at heart, and with that, I knew where I wanted to be. I now had yet another connection to a world originally unknown to me.

I had bonded so quickly with them and acquired new friendships that would last me a lifetime. I gave and received advice or help with school work as needed, and even let out an occasional laugh. I had found people that could interact with me through an exchange of laughter and smiles. I had also always been the independent type. I was insistent on paving my own path into the future, which meant making my own mistakes and leaving it up to myself to doctor them on my own. I was reluctant to accept the advice of others in certain scenarios, but it was when I finally did that their perspectives overcame me. It was their views that helped me through whatever predicament I was faced with, and now I've come to realize the potential in others and the direct impact it can have on my own life. I unfailingly watched them play hockey and fell in love with the physicality and mentality of the game (and even one very special guy). I was aware of how happy I was with my life, and I pitied those who never gave them a chance because they were truly missing out on something special.

In the process of my seemingly new life, I realized something I already knew. The people who judged me weren't my friends at all, and my real friends are the ones who continue to stick by my side. The hardest part of all was having to inevitably say goodbye. The end of their season meant the end of the daily interaction we had become so accustomed to. They would all go back to their hometowns whether they be in Alaska, Virginia, Florida, or somewhere in between, and still I would stay here until the chance to leave home came knocking.

This experience continues to be one of the most amazing of my life. Not only did I learn about others, but also of myself. I gained friendships with incredible people. I experienced heartbreak, and I experienced love. I learned about how important a simple "hello" can be, and how an agonizing "goodbye" can really take a toll on your heart. It was an unforgettable experience, and I still smile every now and then when I reminisce about the first steps I took into the next chapter of my life. Some friends will come back, and others won't, but each year people arrive, new and old, hand in hand with the summertime. Each new face reminds me of my past, as well as the anticipation of what's to come. Everything that had previously been difficult for me was made easier, and I know now how drastically life can change when taking the road less traveled.

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