Growing up, I went to three elementary schools and three high schools. I vividly remember waiting for the bus on my first day at my second high school. We had moved over the summer from an air force base in England to Edmond, Oklahoma. My parents accomplished the move with their usual military efficiency. House bought. Boxes unpacked. Pictures hung. Everyone happy.
I was terrified. I clutched a novel, my teenage security blanket, in one hand and pressed the other to my pounding heart. A bus full of strangers, period after period of classes full of strangers, and the worst, a cafeteria full of strangers awaited me. I knew nothing of mainstream American high school culture and I flubbed my first year so badly that I was grateful, not furious, to start anew in Ohio one year later with my pop culture knowledge, wardrobe, and hair style firmly in place.
I was social in school, happy, but cautious. I never tested my safe bubble. I never tried things that interested me. I kept to mostly quiet, individual endeavors like riding horses and reading. The emotions I most remember from high school are discomfort and uncertainty. Is this where I stand in line? Are they friends? Do I have to take this class? Can I sit here? I never felt like I belonged physically in the space that I occupied.
I longed for the connections that happened so casually between my classmates, for the memories that bound them. The same fourth grade class. Their mothers were best friends. There were downsides – things will follow you from 4th to 12th grade if they can, things I left far behind in the trail of an airplane’s exhaust and the dust of an empty house after all the boxes are packed and shipped.
My third child started Kindergarten this year and I watched in amazement. No kid was ever so comfortable with a school, so certain. He’d been picking up his older brother and sister for two years. He’d been to every party, walked every hall. He greeted my close friend’s daughter in the Kindergarten line, a little girl he has known since birth. He knew the principal by name; he knew older kids who slapped him five and ruffled his hair.
Thankfully, so far he’s a kind kid because I survived some real assholes that knew and ruled the school in my years of being the new girl. Belonging is both a blessing and a curse.
Nate, my baby, exhibits the same comfort and belonging when we walk the blond hardwoods of this pretty little school. He waltzes into the office and asks for the box of books they keep. He sits in the girls’ laps while I volunteer in his sister’s class.
It feels good somewhere deep inside of me where the little girl who buried her head in a book every day at a long, empty cafeteria table still sits, trying not to cry as she nibbles her apples. I’ve wanted this for them for as long as I’ve had them. This quiet confidence. This courage that comes from belonging to a place from the beginning.
And now that I see it, I have doubts. I wonder about their ability to empathize with the child sitting alone. I want them to have this confidence and to understand the privilege at its roots. I want them to be inclusive, open people and I don’t know how to teach something they’ve never experienced for themselves.
It’s funny, like all things life-parenting-existing related. I got what I always wanted for my children and now I wonder if it’s truly best for them. It’s definitely not how I grew up and I’m sure it will have its own challenges and rewards.