The bell had rung and the third-grade class excitedly gathered by the door, a storm of arms grabbing coats off of hooks and knitted hats being tossed on the floor, as the kids vied to be first on line to get to recess. It had been a long afternoon and we had spent much of the time trapped at our desks, looking longingly out the windows as the sun had finally been shining after many days of rain. Most kids were eager to get out. Most kids, except for me.
I lingered behind in the classroom, taking my time tying my shoe until all the kids had left, and it was just me and the teacher. She sat with her reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose, the shiny chain attached behind her ears slung casually around her neck, as she meticulously marked skinny strips of paper that were that day’s spelling tests. Eventually, she looked up and noticed me there, struggling to stuff my arms into the sleeves of my coat, in no apparent rush.
“Don’t you want to head out to recess with the other kids?” she asked, peering over the rims of her glasses, her pen poised mid-air. I shook my head.
“I have no friends,” I said, as tears threatened in my eyes and my tonsils swelled, making my throat feel tight and choked. That morning, two girls had cornered me in the bathroom and one told me she was going to get me a bad present for my upcoming birthday party, and the other chimed in that she wasn’t going to invite me to hers. That meant nobody was my friend; I had looked around the room evaluating each girl and realized that I had no one left. And I certainly wasn’t going to hang out with the boys.
I started crying and the teacher hugged me, as I found the words to express why I’d been feeling so left out. Why each day I had tried to spend time with someone else, but always there was a reason why I didn’t mesh. The two cool girls made a club without me. Another girl told me I was ugly the week before. A few girls seemed to be loners, floating around in their own worlds. “What about Hanna?” she suggested, referring to the girl whose life mission was to be the teacher’s pet, and so she had no time for anybody else. “She could use a friend.” I shrugged my shoulders, mumbling that I would try. I envisioned myself pulling my desk next to hers, flush against the side of the teacher’s desk, encroaching on her space, and already knew it was a friendship that was doomed to fail.
We spent the remainder of recess together, the teacher filling in the parts of my day where the kids didn’t. The teacher listening while I unloaded. The safety in the classroom, a haven for me when I was nervous about the uncertainty in the playground. She didn’t force me outside, or bribe me to leave so that she could have a break. She knew her place was to be there for me, and by the time the bell rang, signaling the end of recess, and the kids came marching back in the room, their cheeks tinged with pink from the chill, their eyes glistening with excitement, she had successfully dried my tears, on the outside, and the inside, and they never resurfaced again.
And so, when a child of mine comes to me and says that he or she feels lonely in school, or has no friends—and they’ve probably all said this to me on occasion, because everyone has days where the feeling of isolation prevails, I get it. I get the fear, the hesitation that might ensue when faced with picking a partner for a project, when you know you’re not anyone’s first choice. When you’re picked last for a team because you’re not athletically inclined. Or when you board a bus, and magically, all the available seats are reserved for someone else, and you’re left to wander up and down the aisle, spinning around in circles, hoping that some generous soul makes room for you, but it doesn’t happen.
I’ve been that child. Maybe we’ve all been that child at one point or another, or maybe not. Maybe you were the one who slid to the edge of your seat to block another kid from sitting near you, or who told another individual on the playground that he couldn’t join your game, and when that child walked away, dejected, you allowed another boy to join instead. And the one left out… he turned his head, and saw the whole thing. We’ve all been a part of this dance. Excluder, or excluded. And they are both painful and shameful in their own ways.
I try to encourage my kids to approach those who seem lonely, who seem uncertain during unstructured time, when there is no designated place to sit, or to be, or to act. Those who don’t have the confidence to ask to join a game of freeze tag, and may need a warm invitation. But I still struggle with finding the right words, of discovering the salve that will ease the sting when my child tells me she was left out. When she passes a group of kids playing on a Shabbat afternoon, and she knows the invitation wasn’t extended to her, and she will have to sit at home and play card games with me, or watch me nap. I know that feeling, and I want to make it better.
And so I listen, and I nod, and I wish I had the magic touch that my third grade teacher had. I wish I could impart that it’s okay to be by yourself. That you are enough, even if the other kids don’t always think you are. Even if he won’t invite you back to his birthday party, or if you have to sit alone on a bus ride, or practice the monkey bars in the playground again and again until your palms erupt with blisters, because that’s less painful than getting rejected from a game of soccer, or of not even finding the words to ever ask to join.
You are enough. You will be someone great. You are someone great. You are enough.
By Sarah Abenaim