“Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you were wearing someone else’s shoes.”
-Phoebe Stone, The Romeo and Juliet Code
The next few years involved a new school every September. Because the island was growing rapidly, school boundaries were constantly shifting. Children were channeled into new placements by what seemed to be a totally disorganized and random system of assignment. In fourth grade, I was sent across the island, far from the school closest to my parent’s house. I was used to moving, so didn’t think anything was amiss.
That year, I didn’t make a friend, but developed a talent for tetherball. I wasn’t a physically active child or athletic in any regard, but that recess pursuit was well suited to someone with reasonable eye-hand coordination. And, I didn’t have to ask anyone to play with me, nor did I need an invitation to join the game. The protocol was to stand in line – anyone could do it – and take a turn playing the champion of the moment. My fourth-grade year, my ‘friend’ was a pole, heavy rope and white tetherball. I greeted that threesome with joy every recess because it took away the stress and loneliness of the playground. I didn’t care if I lost; I could just get in line again. It didn’t mean I had to be perceived as friendless – just that I wasn’t as good as the boy or girl champion of the moment. Amazingly, because it was the only pastime I engaged in every single recess, I became quite good at the sport. At my fifty-year high school reunion, someone actually mentioned the day I, a fourth grader, beat a sixth-grade boy – my only significant lifetime sports achievement.
Fifth and sixth grade were comprised of a new transfer each year. No time to find a Peggy, or even an Ellie. The only marked female bonding experience of a sort did occur, though, in fifth grade. The vehicle? The MENSTRUATION film. There had been whispers about an upcoming event just for girls. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, the drama unfolded. All the boys were asked, in a solemn, near church-like cadence, to leave the classroom. The minute the door was shut, in came all the girls from the next-door fifth-grade class. The female teacher, with the flair of a magician in training, turned out the lights and started up the projector. There, we saw the gruesome, unimaginable truths about our body’s future. Of course, at recess immediately afterward, the boys, like bees swarming the juiciest stamen ever, pestered all the girls for information about what happened inside that darkened room.
In sixth grade, I discovered boys. Well, one boy, Bob McArthur*, and spent the majority of my time in school and until bedtime worrying if he liked me. This pastime filled up an entire school year. Tetherball still occupied my body, but Bob invaded my daydreams.
In seventh grade at that time on the island, students started junior high, and that transition meant that everything shifted once again. By this time, my parents had been divorced a year. My mother and I lived alone in the log cabin, and soon she would meet and marry my stepfather and he would move into the house with her (us, sort of) while they built a new home a few blocks away. There were a lot of transitions at home and at school that year, the biggest of which was the discovery of a new and worrisome social phenomenon; cliques.
Suddenly, there weren’t ‘best friends’ meeting at recess or sitting across the cafeteria table from one another. Now, in the grand transition from elementary to middle school, life happened in clusters, the girls and boys only moving, like newly forming amoebas, in gatherings of three, four, and five. Compared to grade school, the energy level intensified. Unlike the good old pre-menstruation days, now there was a sexual tension to everything. Boys weren’t boys anymore; they were potential boyfriends. Girls weren’t foursquare champions; they were burgeoning goddesses, depending on the size of their developing breasts. Days were filled with the focus of how Group One passed Group Two’s lockers or who stared at whom during class, necessitating seven notes about the profound interaction. Exhausting, and utterly bewildering.
Before, my worry had been about finding one friend. Now, I still lacked that like-minded companion, plus I now had the challenge of breaking into a group, considerably accelerating my social anxiety.
I knew which group I wanted to join, of course, and that was the Popular Girls. I don’t know why I held such an ambitious aspiration. Certainly, my history hadn’t indicated that there the slightest justification that this was a reasonable dream. But, dream I did.
The Popular Girls were anchored by two alpha females; Gabby and Deb (*changed names). They were both smart, exuding the confidence of duo four-star generals, and, most telling; they wore pointed saddle shoes.
This was just one of many pivotal roadblocks with my dream. Not only did I have no history with the group or status of any kind that would justify my inclusion in such elevated company; I had, gasp! rounded saddle shoes. My mother had purchased them for me prior to the school year because she’d heard that’s what the girls in junior high wore. They did. But, unfortunately for me, graduating from sixth grade to seventh meant that one turned in, or threw away, their rounded saddle shoes and upgraded to the pointed version. My mother didn’t get that memo, nor did she fall prey to my tearful pleas for replacing the grade school model for the junior high finessed presentation. I’d worn the rounded shoes; we couldn’t take them back. And she didn’t have the funds nor openness to the whims of a twelve-year old to succumb to my constant, miserable attempts at negotiation for the required change.
I tried scuffing the shoes to death. No. Putting the shoes at the back of my closet. Absolutely no. I was stuck with wearing those baby shoes to school and experienced a walk of shame every time I had to pass Gabby and Deb in their glamorous, upgraded footwear.
One day, and I don’t know how I got so bold, I decided to write a note to Deb. I had seen that note writing was standard communication fare for all the kids, not just the popular girls, so, using my very best handwriting, (that was another thing about those two; their handwriting was off-the-charts beautiful), I said something like, “Want to be friends?”
Oh, yes, something like that. That’s pretty much what Peggy had said to me three years prior, with great success, so it was the only familiar color in my rudimentary social crayon box. And, for some unexplainable reason, Deb found this innocent query to be entertaining, and invited me to the table.
I joined the Popular Group at lunch that day, Deb making room for me, acting as if it were nothing – no big deal – having no idea that my greatest fear now was that I might wet my pants from excitement once I sat on the unforgiving slats of hard plastic attached to the lunch table.
I managed to contain both my bodily and verbal output, playing at participating in the conversation. By now I’d become a great mimic and was a quick study, a la a co-dependent, hypersensitive and alert youth (a skill that, under the tutelage of an alcoholic stepfather, would be honed to perfection in years to come) so I was, miraculously, integrated into the group.
My saddle shoes became the ‘in’ joke, and I laughed expertly with the gang about my mother’s cluelessness. I threw her under the bus faster than a wink from a ninth grade-boy to a seventh grade-girl, and never looked back.
Deb and Gabby remained my close friends throughout junior high, and we all stayed in touch for decades. Sometimes I was tighter with Deb, others with Gabby, but always somehow connected. When we were in our sixties, complicated circumstances changed the dynamic with both women, and our connection ceased. There are only a few friendships I’ve had in my life that ended abruptly or dramatically, and those two ‘Popular Girls’ are in that sad, yet distinct category – a clique, if you will. But the loss, for me, doesn’t negate my gratefulness for their openness to my wish to join their group, and I still appreciate being incorporated into the social paradigm of the times. They guided me through the transition of the one–friend model to some friends, a significant cognitive and emotional milestone. For that, and for the history we shared afterward, I will always appreciate those two girls, whom, for whatever reason, let an outsider with the wrong shoes into their circle.
Next Week: Snow White; heartbreaking enchantment
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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