In another journal, we were talking a little about painful childhood memories, which made me think of a story that sounds painful but really isn’t.
When I was in 7th grade, the kids I ate lunch with came over to me, and politely asked me to stop sitting with them. Their lives were hard enough already, they explained, seeing as they were already so very unpopular and picked upon, and having a complete outcast like me with them made their lives far worse. I think they actually expected me to sympathize with their plight. I didn’t, particularly.
I was free.
I didn’t ever try to make my way back to their table–why would I? I sat alone, and I was picked on lots (but that was hardly new), and I survived. My recollection is that I was actually happier after my exile began than than before. Seventh grade wasn’t so bad really.
Sixth grade was another story. Sixth grade was truly the worst year of my life. That was the year I went to a new school, where I thought I’d finally more or less get along with everyone else–but I didn’t. That year I was forever in tears. I got suspended for breaking a classmate’s finger after she physically attacked me. I may have also been suspended for jabbing a girl with a pen after her verbal attack, but I don’t actually know, since the next morning I hid beneath the covers, and told my Mom I was too sick to go to school.
To this day, if I’m going through a rough time, I remind myself that at least things aren’t as bad as they were in the sixth grade.
But by seventh grade–seventh grade was kind of okay. I’d given up, in a good way. I still wanted friends, but I no longer needed them. I could be alone; I even sometimes liked being alone. I wasn’t going to sacrifice anything of myself to fit in; either people I was sympathetic with would eventually find me, or they wouldn’t.
They did, but that wasn’t until eight grade.
The thing is, when I tell people about seventh grade, they get kind of uncomfortable. They feel sorry for me, or angry on my behalf. But I didn’t feel sorry for myself, even then. If anything, I was proud of myself for being able to manage just fine without everyone else, for not begging or pleading or otherwise sacrificing my pride in any way. Looking back, I find the incident an interesting mix of funny and poignant. One day, I think, when the right story comes along, I’ll use it in a book.
If my adolescence were already a book, the lesson of it, laid on perhaps a bit thickly to make good literature, would have been that being alone is all right, that you should always be true to yourself, that while making sacrifices for others is a fine and even a necessary thing, your true self should never be among those sacrifices.
There were two other kids at that lunch table–the one I stopped sitting at–whom I still think about often. The first was the only one who didn’t join the contingent delivering the no-longer-welcome message. I think she was my only actual friend, back in sixth grade; we were introduced by the girl whose finger I’d eventually break, because it was funny to get two unpopular kids together. We thought the joke was on her, since we actually liked each other quite a bit. In sixth grade, anyway. In seventh grade, my friend decided she was going to be popular, and though she didn’t share her decision with me at the time, she did suddenly, mysteriously stop talking to me. I mourned that particular betrayal more than I mourned losing my lunch table, actually; and it happened a lot earlier in the year.
I suppose my former friend felt she was doing the honorable thing in not telling me personally to stop sitting with her; or perhaps she felt more uncomfortable with the whole ditching-your-friend-to-fit in thing than she let on. The thing is, though, looking back? I’d rather have been me any day–the kid who couldn’t even fake fitting in; than to have been her–the kid who spent junior high trying to fit and never quite managed it.
By high school we’d more or less become friends again. Sometime during college, she actually apologized for junior high, and I accepted the apology. We’re still friends now, and we both have lives that fit us well. Betrayal may be forever and irredeemable in novels sometimes, but less often in real life.
The other kid at the lunch table was with the group that approached me, but she didn’t actually say anything–a quiet follower, I assumed at the time, and more or less mentally dismissed her.
Except by the end of eight grade, that girl and I had become fast friends. She was one of two friends I stayed close with throughout high school, and beyond. (The other is lucy_anne, but that was ninth grade–a year better than either sixth, seventh, or eight grade, but also a year beyond the scope of this story.)
Much later I learned that the other kids at that lunch table had been giving my future friend a hard time about the way she worked so hard at school, and got such good grades, and didn’t try to hide how smart she was–but she didn’t change any of those things, even though they told her to.
When she was in a minor car accident at the end of eighth grade, the other kids from that lunch table didn’t even visit her in the hospital.
Being friends with me didn’t help her social standing any, but she didn’t really care, or if she did she never said so. It turned out she wasn’t willing to sacrifice anything of her true self to fit in, either. Once we were friends, we were friends, and if we had the usual occasional friendship squabbles, she never abruptly stopped talking to me on the chance that someone else would accept her.
It’s dangerous to assume we know who’s noble, and who’s not, based on surface impressions. The day I got kicked out of my lunch table, I had no idea I was looking at someone who would within a year become one of my best friends.
It’s not only the popular kids who make snap judgments based on insufficient information.
To this day I continue to believe, with a sort of fierce idealism, that if you stay true to yourself, you and the people you’re sympathetic with will find each other. But if you make all the wrong sacrifices to fit in–if you hang at the lunch table where you know you don’t belong, even before someone walks up and says so–well, then you’re never going to be happy, and things are never going to be right, and you’re never going to fit in, either.
Being alone won’t destroy us; but being someone other than who we really are just might.
There’s a sort of coda to this story, though I’ve no idea what it means. The girl whose finger I broke eventually married the brother of the girl who became my best friend in the eight grade. She and I never became friends; but we were bridesmaids together at my friend’s wedding.