Once in awhile I feel like I am back to being the 6th grade girl sitting alone on the bus with sticky, wet candy in her hair. Trying not cry. Wishing I had people I belonged to or were at ease with. Longing to be anyone but the new girl at my fourth California school who couldn’t summon up enough courage to speak even a “hello” to any of the other kids.
Chubby, shy by nature, and with a unique face kids often stared at, I’d already been through a lot by then. In kindergarten, the kids wondered aloud if I was from another country because of the shape of my eyes. In first grade, they commented on my little nose. By second grade, they would yell “Cabbage Patch Kid!” as they raced past me on the playground.
My one blessing, and the greatest of them all in my seven-year-old eyes, was my best friend Marci. She was a cool kid. She had confidence. She proudly hailed from New York. Most important of all, she was nice and she stood up for me. Hands on her hips she would yell back at the mean kids. Her envied freckles flaming, she would scrunch up her nose and give them a what-for. I always guessed it was because of her that I even got invited to parties. Kids like me usually were left out.
Then one early fall at the beginning of third grade, my mom and I moved to a new town. I found myself far away from the school I knew, away from Marci my Defender, and was plucked into a sequence of several years filled with new towns and new apartments. Which also meant new schools.
I was able to be inconspicuous at the first two new schools, mostly by reading alone by the classroom door at recess. Then I discovered band. I praise God for that. Learning how to play an instrument took my mind off the friends I still hadn’t made, opened a new place of wonder in my soul, and it also started to give me a little bit of a community I hadn’t been able to find as a shy kid. It wasn’t long until I did make a few good friends.
Then we moved in the middle of sixth grade. Twice. The first school that year was a monster of a junior high in a big town. It was navigating through asteroids in outer space. It was the rookie horrors of the P.E. locker room. My goal was to be invisible. I still hadn’t been able to get my “hello” out. I also didn’t feel like I mattered, compared with all the cliques and kids who already knew each other.
The second school was a K-6 elementary school. The hair candy bus school. I sat in the front near the bus driver while a small group of pretty, popular girls sat way in the back. The bus was mostly empty, and there was no one in between us. I heard a bunch of laughing. Then it got louder. I turned around and they all ducked, blond curls giving them away as the wind from the open windows whipped the tops of their hair around. Checking my own thick, permed hair to make sure it was in control, I felt the first Jolly Rancher. Then the second. I froze.
I lacked social skills, but I was a nice girl. I barely spoke to anyone. I was quiet, but full of love. I didn’t understand. Why me?
The school secretary found the third piece of wet, sucked on candy as they cut out the pieces for me. I couldn’t get them out myself. I’m not sure if I ever told my mom. I was humiliated. Thankfully, we moved again not long after that. Things got much better when I was able to stay in the same school district for the next five years. I came out of my shell a little more, although still shy enough that while I could talk to my band friends I could barely say “hello” to the students in my regular classes.
Thirty years later, I still think on that incident now and then. It comes to me in the moments when I notice others briefly glance at me, but make more of an eager effort to converse with the beautiful or fun people across the table. It makes me pause when I feel uninvited or left out. It haunts me when I feel not good enough.
I am much more outgoing these days. I’m better at conversations now. It may or may not be hard to tell, but there are still times when I’m secretly shaking in my boots when I talk to people. My confidence-in-training ebbs and flows like the oceans’s tide, but it strengthens with each small step of courage.
Despite all that, I am not sorry for my social hardships as a kid. Yes, the memories sometimes pain me in the moments when I feel lonely, but I know I still have growing to do. I could also make more of an effort on my part. Maybe accept more invitations. Or look for how people may need someone to talk to and listen to them, rather than hide in my own insecurities. It gives me opportunity to pray not only for myself, but for others like myself. And those times always draw me back to Jesus, who is now my most reliable and greatest best friend of all. He tells us He is with us always.
These days, I am not afraid to say “hello”. I make it my mission to smile and say hello to try to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I’m not Miss Sunshine 24/7…believe me, I have some cranky days! And I get in a sullen mood during some seasons. But within each child I meet, I can’t help but wonder if they have ever felt like I had when I was young. Within each adult, I imagine they may have had a painful, bullying experience, too…no matter what they look like. Or maybe they are having a rough day and need some friendliness.
I chose not to let exclusion break me into pieces. I found other things to hold unto while I grew my courage. Music, books, Jesus…journal writing. Eventually, I realized that even one person like me can make a difference in someone’s day who might be feeling alone. If just one word….”Hello”…can make things a little better for someone, then I’m going to summon up my courage and get it done.