Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It wasn't my first day at the new school, but I still felt like an outsider.

My parents had insisted that I attend a private prep school despite my desire to remain with my friends in the public school system. I was plucked from my comfortable surroundings and dropped into a new world, filled with new people, experiences, and worldviews, in the eighth grade.

Although the school taught kids from kindergarten through high school graduation, the largest influx of "new" students usually occurred at one of four distinct levels: kindergarten, fourth grade, seventh grade, or ninth grade. I and a handful of others provided exceptions to this situation. For all I know, I replaced some other kid who simply wasn't performing up to standards, or who had moved away due to some family tragedy.

Fitting in was difficult: everyone had already had at least a year to cultivate friendships and get to know each other. Painfully shy that I was (and to some extent still am), I found myself adrift, lost. For the first month, many was the day I went from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. without speaking a word to anyone.

Making things still more difficult for me was the fact that I'm from a decidedly middle-class background, likely even a lower-middle class one. I did not grow up with many creature comforts; I did not live in a big house; I did not own nice clothes or any of the shiny gadgets that the cool (read: more well-off) kids had. In my public school district, in my group of friends, such externalities didn't really matter, for we all had a shared sense of what was "affordable" and what wasn't. Here, the bar on frivolous spending money was raised, and I was left behind in my JCPenney clothes while my peers paraded around in brand names.

After a while I made an effort. I reached out to a handful of other kids who seemed nice. My first distinct memory of doing so was talking to Todd from my English class, whom I observed furiously scribbling something or another on a piece of paper supported by his Trapper Keeper one morning before classes started. Somehow I recognized it to be an assignment that was due that day which I had not completed either ("We were supposed to do that? And it's due today?"). Had he not reminded me, I would have never done that Reader's Response. (Thanks, Todd.)

By mid-semester I had finally hit something of a comfort zone. I had some friends, I was mildly outgoing, and I was determined not to look like I was trying too hard to fit in. I smiled and acted friendly a lot. I suppose it was reasonable for someone observing from the outside to think that I was popular and outgoing, and had a lot of friends.

Mr. Harrison, my English teacher, apparently thought that of me.

I've long since forgotten the story that we had finished reading, but the memory of Mr. Harrison's enlightened "exercise" to illustrate a point still haunts me. The story had something to do with being an outcast, a misfit, a nobody. Someone in the story just didn't belong in the environment she was in.

Without explanation, Mr. Harrison picked me and three others to leave the room and wait in the hall for a bit. The only other person I remember who was selected with me was William, who was probably the most popular guy in the class. (Unlike me, he genuinely was pretty well-liked -- I think.)

When we eventually were summoned to return to the room, we found that the rest of the class had broken up into four groups, with their chairs turned toward each other in little circles. Each of us who had left the room joined one of the groups, and we were supposed to talk about something or another in these discussion groups. I took my seat (now with a group that was clear across the room from where I normally sat for class), pulled out my textbook, and waited for something to happen.

What happened was not what I expected. I started to speak, but was roundly ignored. I tried to listen, but it seemed like they were whispering to keep me out of the loop. Eventually I had to ask to be included in the discussion, at which point Kerry rather coldly told me to "just go read the book again." (I think this was literally the third sentence she uttered to me, ever.) For ten agonizing minutes, I was completely shut out, despite my efforts. I was transported back to my first day of classes, once again isolated, reminded anew that this world was not one in which I belonged.

With the force of Vesuvius, all my insecurities -- feelings which by that point I thought I had decently suppressed -- erupted to the surface. I could feel my cheeks flush bright red and worse yet, I found my eyes started to well up. I blinked once, twice, three times, four, seven, eleven, whatever it took; I was willing myself to stop, for I was certain I would never have been able to live down the indignity of crying in front of my peers so early in my career at this school. But I do remember thinking how much I now once again hated this school, the people, the pretension, the hypocrisy, the sense of entitlement. These kids were so mean.

Mr. Harrison possibly saw what was going on with me, because the exercise terminated very quickly thereafter. We all turned our chairs back to face the front of the room, which was good because it meant no one could see my just-this-close-to-utterly-losing-it face.

Mr. Harrison explained his little game: the kids in the room were instructed to be as standoffish as possible with the effect of excluding those of us who had been sent outside. This exercise was meant to demonstrate the feelings of alienation so that we could sympathize with whatever the woman in the story felt or did.

It worked. I felt alone and rejected.

We were called upon to talk about the experience. Thankfully, William (who had more confidence and social skills in the eighth grade than I possess today) survived his ordeal intact, and was able to talk about how he felt and what he was thinking. Had I attempted to open my mouth, I probably would have burst into tears. Some other kids even managed to mention how hard it was to be the exclusionary ones and act so rudely to the Selected Four. (It made me feel marginally better to see Kerry nodding her head in agreement to this comment.)

In the end, Mr. Harrison explained that he had selected the four of us because he had pegged us as some of the more outgoing and friendly kids in the class, who probably would be able to handle the rejection best. I resisted the urge to tell him just how wrong he was.

Mr. Harrison asked the class to give a hand to the Selected Four for "being good sports" and participating in this exercise (as if we had any choice in the matter). Never mind that I wanted to wring his neck.

** Epilogue: I eventually came out of my shell, made a solid core of friends, endured five years of academic hell and graduated. There are many other, much happier memories of my alma mater that I carry with me to this day. But this one anchors me to a place in my life that I don't ever want to return to.


Kristin said...

Egad. I think I'd be scarred for life.

Ryan said...

Man, my teacher in grade school did the same damn thing to me! I can't get over how this is considered a normal experiment or thing to do. All I remember is how bad I wanted to knock my teacher in the face.

Kiddo78 said...

What a nightmare! Middle school kids are the worst!! And I was one of them...yikes. I think our time in hell is spent in junior high.