The social world, for me, has always been an awkward thing to navigate. Especially now that I’m a mom. I always hoped, in my youth, that these things would get easier as I aged, but…nope…they haven’t.
I am essentially the same string-bean girl with pigtails and dusty, white-canvas Keds that I was in grade school. Only now, I’ve added some girth, dropped the ‘do and opted for dusty Nikes instead. In essence, I have grown into a larger form of my same self. But haven’t we all, really? Isn’t that what aging, growing, maturing is all about? Becoming yourself in a bigger version?! Well, sort of…
The sad fact is that though we do age and we do grow, we don’t always change. I’m starting to see the cracks in my own development and have noticed, through the course of PTA meetings and play-dates, how I am the same person I was in school. And I’m starting to sense that this is true for most people, as well. For better or worse.
I’m sure everyone knows the typical archetypes that play out repetitively, either in the schoolyard or outside of it. There is always a popular person – that one special soul everyone wants to know or emulate. And, equally important, there is the life of the party – someone who is so comfortable in their skin that they make everything seem lighthearted and fun.
And then there others, like the helper (who you can rely on for anything), the organizer (who is able to get things done) or the clown (who helps lift your mood). Each of these people were born with the innate ability to be one with themselves and offer a skill to the world that has an absolute value. They are needed. They are loved. They are celebrated. From cradle to grave.
Then there are other, less-desirable types who make our time on Earth less pleasurable. There is the braggart – he always looks to one-up your experiences or make your talents/abilities/fortunes seem nominal in comparison to his own. The snob, similar to the braggart, is never able to find contentment within their surroundings.
Of course, there is also the social-climber – someone who is friends with you just long enough to use you for their gain…and then leave. Their cousin, the back-stabber, equally has no sense of honor when it comes to allegiances and will sell you out in a heartbeat for a pack of gum.
But, worst of all, a fixture of all playground drama, is the bully. The bully is able to embody all of these negative aspects on the inside, while somehow hiding them so well under the exterior of one of the other, more positive characters, she will often go unrecognized by most. Yes, in the adult world there are still bullies. In my case, she was the mom with long blonde hair and a tray full of cookies.
This awkwardness I felt around her had lasted for a couple of years. We would encounter one another at school carnivals, children’s birthday parties, book fairs and holiday events. We would say hello to each other. Fake smiles. Wave in carpool. But, what I didn’t know was that under the surface of smiles and years of forced conversations, she was seething with animosity towards me. It was totally unprovoked. And it was not in my head.
The cause, I would later come to find out, was because four years before I had posted an article on Facebook about the devastation big families cause the environment. I didn’t say anything damning. I just posted the article with a response that “this is why I will only have one kid.” Obviously, I didn’t only have one kid, so that logic flew out the window. But it was just a silly article I chose to share years ago. One that held very little value over my life, but one that she saw as a personal attack to her family of seven and, therefore, felt the need to cause my destruction.
I always felt the sense of something being “off.” I knew, for whatever reason, that she didn’t like me. Not really. But I was okay with it. It bugged me. I didn’t understand it. But, I dealt with it. That was, until the veneer came off and her reasoning for disliking me bled over into her reasoning others to do the same.
Under hushed tones, I know she whispered about how my “sad little career” was a joke in comparison with her own, thriving business. I discovered how she had adopted some of my friends as her new “besties” and asked them pointed questions about how they could feel comfortable having an atheist (meaning me) influencing their children during play dates. To my best knowledge, I had held very little impact influencing anyone to do anything…but that was beside the point.
I started to feel sorry for her, how insecure she must be, how lonely – until I realized that I was the one! Insecure. Lonely. A loner. And I had always been. Because of people like her. It was her very ilk which had marked me from the start, put me in my box, and left me there like a prisoner. For my entire life.
Schoolyard drama had never ended. It had just shifted. Grown. Increased in its value in my life. Perhaps in all other lives. It was all the same as it had ever been. And, no matter how much older I got, not a darn thing would change that fact. Worse still was the fact that I was passing it along to my own children to repeat and rediscover. A family of loners. Alone, again. Naturally.
So, now that I watch my daughter, in all of her social experiments (some floundering, some faltering), I worry about the thing that plagued me more than bad hair and orthodontic halitosis: the unrequited friendship. It is the sure-fired fast track path to becoming a loner. And loners are easy fodder for bullies.
When I was a kid, I remember always wanting to be friends with people who were not quite as interested in me as I was with them. There was never an equal footing and, as a result, the ones I considered to be my best friends were people who only regarded of me as “okay.” Sadly, sometimes, I see this path coming along the horizon with my daughter. So, my new goal, as any parent’s would be, is to nip this in the bud.
There have been times when she comes home in tears after being excluded from a game or told about a birthday party to which she was not invited. In those moments, I coach her as fervently as I coach that hurt little girl in dusty Keds, the one I used to be.
Simply, to both wounded children, I explain that these things happen. People get left out. But it doesn’t diminish the worth of the outsider. The outsider just has to harness this feeling and treat others better than they were treated. They need to learn to dance to their own songs and sing to their own rhythm. They need to bask in the beauty of silence and live with the knowledge that observation makes them kings. And, more importantly than any other lesson, they need know that, though life isn’t fair, it can be just.
Cookies will make everyone fat. Mascara, after enough tears, will run. And mean people will lose friends. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But in the end, it is far better to be forgotten in the crowd than remembered as an asshole.
I cling to that truth. The smaller version of myself clings to it. And, hopefully, if I have any influence at all, my daughter will cling to these words as well, whether she follows my dusty loner’s path or that of her more clown-like father!