While it may sound strange, I really want to thank that group of 8th grade girls who dropped me like a hot potato barely a month into the school year. Without the experience of getting to know them and being vilified by them in little over a month, I may not have had the opportunity to learn many valuable life lessons. I would never have seen, close up, what the teenage gulag really looks like.It is an unforgettable sight.
I guess it may not have been the best idea to let my father broker a deal to net me some friends at my new school. He and a neighbor colleague cooked up the idea that his daughter and her friends would take me under their wing, introduce me around, and help me find my land legs on new ground. The two well-meaning fathers hadn’t realized that the social structure of adolescent life is as fragile as spun sugar, and just as susceptible to subtle changes in climate.
So I walked to school with these girls, a tight cadre with an established repertoire of in-jokes, you-had-to-be-there stories, and a firmly established place in the ordered galaxy of junior high school social cliques. As these things go, they orbited fairly close to the sun. I was trying to keep pace– like what they liked, laugh at what they thought was funny, copy the way they dressed.
|Apples, honey, a new start…|
The Jewish high holidays come early in the school year, usually September or October. One bright fall morning, I mentioned to my new friends that they wouldn’t need to come around on the way to school for the next couple of days.”Why not?” they asked. “It’s a holiday,” I said. “You know, a Jewish holiday. The New Year?”
I swear, I felt the temperature drop right then as the message sank in. My new friends responded with some profound observations, having to do with their deep knowledge of the Jewish faith and practices, and expressed some feelings of uncertainty about my future with their group, owing to some irreconcilable differences that they may not have noticed until just that moment. I heard the key turn in my social isolation cell. Clank.
And so, this is how I learned to enjoy my own company in the mornings, at lunch, between classes, and on the way home. Social isolation is a good incentive for introspection and deep thought. While gaggles of kids talked and laughed at lunch, I found a quiet corner, thanks to a thoughtful custodian, and was able to savor the solitude as I ate my sandwich alone. It was a time of silent, and sometimes salty, contemplation.
I’m grateful to these girls for saving me from going down the wrong path at a crucial time in my life. Instead of the cool, quasi-intellectual, pot-smoking counter culture ne’er-do-wells I hung out with in high school, I may have instead been tagging along with kids who drank too much, drove recklessly, and joined the secret social clubs that weren’t supposed to exist but did.
Without my friendless free fall in the 8th grade, I may have had it too easy. A ready-made group of friends precluded me from striking out on my own, figuring out where I fit in, and getting the lay of the land from my own perspective. Starting from scratch opened up new opportunities. There was no place to go but up.
And I owe a heartfelt vote of thanks to the girl who wrote me a note, letting me know that I had apparently missed several obvious indicators that certain boys were unavailable to me, since she and her friends had them earmarked already. If I recall correctly, she had kindly included a sort of column A and column B of boys and the girls who had claimed them, either in reality or imagination, that I could refer to if I needed a gentle reminder. I was cautioned, in a friendly way, to butt out or else. I could only surmise that my own initially friendly manner had been misinterpreted as predatory. Who knew that good-natured joshing and a slight tendency to flirt would land me in solitary?
Truthfully, there is no way to glorify the particular level of hell reserved for kids on the social outskirts. After a stay in that awful place, you get a special stamp on your life’s passport, written in indelible ink. But I made it out, and for that I owe true gratitude to my Uncle Joe, the only one I told about my lonely lunches and status as pariah. He assured me that things would get better. And he was right.
Thanks, Uncle Joe– wherever you are.