New Kids on the Block

Mary Claire and I attended the mandatory call-out meeting for all eighth grade athletes yesterday. We found the junior high, signed in, and sat down among a sea of chatty new teenagers and their equally chatty parents.

“Do you see anyone you know?” I asked, casually trying to lighten the mood as we swam in a sea of strangers.

She rolled her eyes at me.

It’s tough — this new-kid-in-school gig. Two rows in front of us, ten long-haired, giggly girls talked and laughed and shared summer stories together.

“You can go introduce yourself,” I suggested.

Another eye roll.

Please offer her a smile, I silently begged. Just one. All it takes is one.

I looked around that auditorium filled with fresh, young faces and thought… who is going to offer a kind, inclusive hand? Who is going to mock my girl’s sassy, red Chuck Taylors? Who is going to ask her to sit at the lunch table? Who will capture her attention? Who will break her heart?

And I had to swallow back tears. Because in this world of pervasive self-preservation, sometimes we human beings are mean. Sometimes it feels safer to knock someone down than to help pick them up. Sometimes pretending someone doesn’t exist is easier than opening yourself up to potential heartbreak.

But you can’t discover new love and light and friendship in a cocoon. Taking a risk on someone might be scary, but isn’t it always — always — better than missing out on what might have been?

“Do all these girls look exceptionally skinny to you?” my daughter asked.

Tread carefully, I thought. Choose whatever comes out of your mouth next with precision.

“I think they look like eighth grade girls in a variety of beautiful shapes and sizes and hair colors.”

Eye roll #3.

“Are you nervous?” I asked my girl.

“I’m nervous about making the volleyball team,” she replied. “I don’t know how good these girls are or how long they’ve been playing. But I’m not nervous about school.”

“Not at all?” I asked.

“No, Mom. I’ve done this before. It’s no big deal.”

She is so brave, my girl. All my kids are. Three different schools in four years is no cake walk. Someday, they’ll look back and be grateful for the strength and tenacity they acquired during these years, but right now, they’re still just kids trying to find a place to fit in.

Mamas out there, please teach your children to smile at the new kids. Please let them know that it’s courageous and strong and brave and adventurous to reach out to someone you don’t know. Please remind them that behind the new girl’s glasses or the new boy’s fresh forehead break-out might be the best friend and biggest heart they could ever hope for — that an infectious belly laugh is just waiting for permission to make itself heard. Please help them understand that our shapes, sizes, and make-up choices don’t define us — that looking into a human being’s soul is so much more important than looking at her clothing labels.

I promise I’ll teach my kids the same.

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