Elementary school and junior high were no picnic.
I had my first breakup in the fifth grade, and it wasn’t even a romantic relationship. My best friend…okay, let’s be honest, my only friend…came over while I was sharpening my pencil by the coat rack and said, “I think we should be friends with other people.”
She used those exact words. I was too young and dumb to realize that actually meant I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.
For a year, I didn’t have any friends at all.
I was always picked last.
I never got the jokes. (Full disclosure? Sometimes I still don’t.)
I was only invited to birthday sleepovers because it was a Catholic school rule that everyone had to be invited. And people made fun of me when I was out of the room. I heard them.
High school was a fresh start for me, and three of the four years were basically good. Sophomore year was terrible, start to finish. But even during the good years, when people said, “These are the best years of your life,” I shook my head inside and chose to believe they were just being idiotic adults.
Most of the time, adults knew what they were talking about, but in this case, I’m happy to say, the teenager knew more than they did. Thank God. In college I finally found my people—the classical music crowd—but it took full-on adulthood to reach a point where I feel like I am happy with who I am and I exist in a community of people who understand me.
Frankly, I think it has a lot to do with being happily married. A child’s emotional stability, that sense of belonging, gets rocked by the onset of adolescence, and you spend the next ten to twenty years trying to find a new place where “home” means the safety you knew as a young child. Just sitting here thinking about it, I grieve for the children who never know that sense at all, and for the adults who never found it again. And, frankly, for the list of people for whom high school was the best time in their lives. Shudder. Imagine if life never got any better than that.
Why this traipse through the ghosts of angsts long past? Because now I get to experience it in a whole new way. More than one of my children is currently experiencing some variation of the not-good-enough that defined my later childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Probably it defines those parts of everybody’s lives, but in adolescence, those of us who inhabit the bottom of the social totem pole—not good at sports, not cool, viewing primping as a waste of good superhero-drawing/reading/writing/music practice time—feel that our faces are rubbed in our inadequacies quite frequently. Who knows? Maybe it’s harder to navigate those insecurities at the stratospheric end of the totem pole, because you are trying to keep up appearances when you feel like a fraud. Maybe I should be grateful for the spiritual/emotional/intellectual honesty of having had nothing to prove—both for myself and my children.
But it’s hard to see your kids suffer. As much as I value being outside the mainstream on, well, let’s face it, just about everything, I know how it hurts to be looked at like you’re somehow less valuable for it.
What I am grateful for is the fact that so far my kids want to talk to me about it. Because I’ve thought long and hard on these questions over the years, and for that reason I don’t fall back on the useless and maddening platitudes that adults used when I was a kid. Because we can use the experience as an ongoing opportunity for lessons in mercy, in recognizing how every situation is more complex than it feels, and in keeping the focus on Jesus.
And mostly, because it lets me love my kids really hard.