It all started on the playground in kindergarten. We ran into each other, cracking heads, and falling to the ground. Both sent to the nurses office for ice packs on our noggins. A strange way to meet your best friend, but a seed was planted and something lovely grew from it. We collected charms for our charm necklaces together. I learned what it was like to be incorporated into her very large family. She found solitude in a dinner with only five people. We had sleep overs and stayed up late sharing secrets.
The next five years, we were inseparable. We knew the two-mile path to each others’ houses on our bikes like it was tattooed on our arms. We started our own Etsy shop before the internet existed. Instead we tied hundreds of friendship bracelets and sold them to a downtown shopkeeper.
I’m not sure what my first inkling was that things were changing. It was okay to come over to play, but not okay to hang out on the play ground. It became clear that I was not at all cool and never would be. Her new friends didn’t want me around. She was my best friend though, so I thought things would work themselves out.
Our classrooms were next door to each other. During a transition throughout the day, I stopped by her locker and she said, “Leave me alone.” I was crushed. Later I found a note in my locker from her. She tore me apart in it. Any insecurity I had, she put a magnifying glass over and like on a sunny day it started on fire. She told me about how she and the boy I liked laughed about how ridiculous it was that I ever thought he would like me back. She told me her mom made her invite me to her birthday party. She told me over and over that she hated me. That her new friends hated me. She told me how lame I was and there was nothing that would ever change that. Six pages of hate that ended with the final blow of what a cry baby I was and how she knew I would tell my parents about this note and if I did how she would tell everybody how really worthless I was.
I took the note home with me. At night I would read and re-read it, wondering what made me so unlikable. Angry that I didn’t wear the right clothes or fix my hair properly. The more I read it, the more I believed it. How could anybody ever like me, if my own best friend didn’t? I wish I could remember what caused me to tell my mother. I begged her not to say anything to my former-friend’s mom, which I knew she would. I thought there was a way to salvage a friendship with someone who made me feel small and insignificant if I just followed her instructions. She was holding me prisoner in solitary confinement. No, I had imprisoned myself in my own shame and grief.
Fifth grade ended rather remarkably for me in spite of the drama that had ensued during the year. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that I had five cases of strep throat that year and missed an inordinate number of school days at home with a fever. It is as true today as it was when I was ten years old… I get sick when I’m worn down. In fifth grade I learned that sticks and stones could break my bones, but words could shatter my soul.
Graduating from elementary school into middle school went as smoothly as it could for a girl who found herself completely friendless and hopelessly uncool. The six page hate letter (as it was known at home) had sufficiently scared me from thoughts of dating, which maybe made my middle school years a snip easier (at least for my parents.) My heart had already been broken once. Adding boys to the mix probably would have crushed me or caused me to have sex at an inappropriately young age.
Slowly I found a new group to hang out with. These girls were less mean and had much lower expectations as it related to hair styling, make-up application, clothing labels, and all other 6th grade cool attributes. They encouraged me to be smart, join the Future Problem Solvers’ league (yeah… that was an after school activity), and love math. By high school they convinced me to go out for the soccer team and I found my own nerdy version of cool on the varsity math team. Of course we had our usual high school girl skirmishes, but they taught me an important lesson in acceptance.
What I wish I knew then that I know now is that you have to take your armor off. I’m Facebook friends with all those girls, but we rarely get together in real life. Some are still really close with each other. I think they found courage to let their imperfections show and found out that we all have our own flaws.
It wasn’t until I left for college that I learned to be vulnerable and saw how transformative it could be for a friendship. The sophomores on the soccer team took me under their wings. They showed me I could do things I didn’t think were possible. They told me it was cool that I brought my 20 pound physics book to study on long road trips. They got me out of my comfort zone and made me dress up for Halloween. They also thought it was hilarious to snap me (and the other freshmen) with towels in the locker room, which oddly always ended in uproarious laughter. I found myself naked with them both literally and figuratively… and it was okay.
At age 26, I was going through boxes in our basement. Boxes that had been moved no fewer than a dozen times. Boxes that should have been purged from my life long ago, but held memories that somewhere along the way I just couldn’t let go of. In one of the boxes, I found the six page hate letter. I read it and knew for sure that those words didn’t define me. Then I carefully folded it up exactly as it had been found in my fifth grade locker and tossed it in the trash. What I would have given to have been able to do that the day I received it.
We all find ourselves at times feeling like that fifth grade girl seeking approval, wanting to be liked, and needing to be included. Hopefully there is someone willing to reach out for our hand when we find ourselves alone. Even more often we see glimmers that fifth grade girl in others and have the opportunity to remind her she is cool, encourage her interests, or maybe inappropriately snap a wet towel at her in the locker room to help her belong. Had I not been the recipient of that awful note, I’m not sure I would see those glimmers as often as I do or be the girl who asks you to play, not the one who spurns you for fear of association. My life is a lot richer because I’m surrounded by those kinds of girls (and boys.)
Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.