When I started junior high one of my closest friendships ended. We’d been friends all through grade school. We ate our weight in popsicles together during the summers, sported matching Halloween costumes in the fall, and giggled together during sleepovers year-round. As we left the cozy cocoon of elementary school for the unknown territory of junior high school, we pinky swore we’d stay friends.
Early on it was clear that our junior high experiences were going to be very different. Kids get sorted into groups quickly in those first few weeks of school. Unfortunately, this is not done by some omniscient, benevolent Harry Potter-style Sorting Hat. Instead it’s a Lord of the Flies-like process carried out by hormone-addled tweens who are navigating power and prestige for the first time with minimal adult supervision.
As a kid, I didn’t have the social skills or the understanding of how to claim my place in the hierarchy before someone else placed me. I just kept showing up to sit with my friend at lunch and feeling less and less welcome at her table. Bit by bit my identity shifted and my self-confidence shrank, until one day I stood gripping my tray and surveying the cafeteria with a pit of terror in my stomach because I had no idea where to sit.
People talk a lot about how broken our education system is, especially in the public schools. And sure, smaller classes and better funding would be great. If I could change just one thing about the whole experience, though, it would be assigned seats at lunch. Because the only environment more treacherous than a school lunchroom is the predator-filled African savannah. For the love of God, can we please just tell those children where to sit already so that no one eats their lunch hiding in the bathroom or skips it all together and develops an eating disorder? While we’re at it, let’s have assigned seats for adults, too, for life in general. Because for some of us that panicky feeling of looking out over the crowd and searching for a place to sit where you’ll be welcomed never goes away.
Within a few weeks of school starting my friend found a new group of friends, and I was left floating. I did find a lunch table eventually. I sat with a bunch of reasonably friendly kids who were neither popular nor unpopular, but I never felt like a core member of their group. I tried out other groups as well, from the theater geeks to the jocks, but I felt out of place in all of them.
I know now that everyone felt this way in junior high school. Those are wretched, confusing years no matter who your friends are or where you sit at lunch. No one warns you about this, though—at least no one beyond your parents or your guidance counselor. Who, when you’re thirteen, are the only people you’re certain are less cool than you.
Fast forward a couple (okay, several) decades, and I finally feel a sense of belonging. I feel anchored in my neighborhood, my group of friends, at work, and in the other communities I’ve chosen. I’m reminded, though, how fragile that feeling of being a part of something is whenever I show up somewhere new or different. I get a little sweaty when I walk into a room filled small groups of people already gathered and chatting. All my grown-up self-confidence goes out the window and I’m right back in junior high, desperate for someone to wave me over and help me find my place.
The other day a friend and I were at the pool with our kids. Before I got there her young daughter ran into some girls from her class at school, so my friend suggested that she go say hi.
“She went over a big smile, and they basically just walked away,” my friend told me incredulously. “And now they’re swimming together and she’s hanging out alone.”
I wanted to be shocked. I wasn’t, though, because I’ve been there. Even though it was a long time ago it still feels oddly fresh. As an adult, it’s easy to chalk it up to kids being kids or going through a rough patch. We shouldn’t brush it away, though. Let’s do a better job of acknowledging how painful and scary it is to feel like you don’t belong, and of reassuring them that it gets better. Even better than talking about it, let’s show them.
Since our kids won’t listen to us, let’s find our coolest friend; the one our kids love. (Lady Gaga would be great if you happen to be friends with her.) If this friend is cool now, I guarantee you they were awkward and weird in junior high. Make them bring over pictures of their awkwardness. Now, these pictures need to really bad or the kids won’t buy it—but if you were born in the late 70s or 80s that shouldn’t be hard. Have this friend tell their story. Don’t let them sugarcoat it. Watch your kids’ minds explode with the realization that who they are right now is not who they are going to be.
Also, remember that they are watching you and taking their cues from your behavior. Maybe you’re like me and you feel like you’ve finally found your place. How are you looking out for people who haven’t? How are you widening the circle instead of closing it off? When I ask myself those questions, I cringe a little and realize I can do much better. Next time you’re at a meeting or a school event and you see someone walk in and scan the room for a seat, do their thirteen-year-old self (and yours) a favor. Wave them over. Invite them in. Let them know there’s a place for them.
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