29 April 2012

Ramblings on Friendship

It’s been a crazy week, full of “she said-she said”, tears, betrayal, nasty words and nastier notes. Fourth grade girls, easy to anger and hard to reason with. Harder still to determine the truth. A careful conversation with another girl’s mother, oh-so-polite agreement, though it was clear that each of us mostly believed her own daughter’s story. Tentative apologies, symbolic gift-giving, finally chattering at the bus stop. And parents unsure whether a change is in order—is this a blip or an indication of other problems to come?

No one tells you that having children means you get to revisit the worst and hardest parts of childhood. And the best, of course, but that was not what this week held.

Last day of British school.
 Two of them left the country the next day.
“Mom,” she said in tears. “How could she do that to me? I thought she was my friend. I thought she knew how hard it’s been for me being new this year. I want to go back to Germany! ” At her old school, where she was one of a handful of Americans, where she stuck out for her accent, her culture, but where she felt a sense of belonging, of trust. She doesn’t feel that at her very good suburban elementary school, in her home country, which—for now, at least—still feels a bit foreign to her.

As an adult, I can see that I never did fit into the culture of my childhood home. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have fit in elsewhere, but Tyrone is all I have to go by. When I go back, the beauty of the mountains, the openness of the landscape—no five-lane highways, no hustle-bustle, no feeling like other people are just in your way, simply because there are so many of them—it feels like home. And the junior-senior high school, which looks the same now as it did in the 80s (at least from the front), where I impressed the hell out of the teachers. Not so much the students.  High school is where smart became a dirty word to me.

Junior high is where I learned how mean girls can be.

Even nice girls from good homes, even church-going girls.

It went on for months, in my memory. Notes telling me how stuck-up I was. Girls I didn’t know well telling me that so-and-so was mad at me. Girls cluster in groups, you know. Rarely is a conflict between just two people.

For the record, the “mean girls” in my memory grew up to be lovely adults. In fact, they grew into lovely 17-year-olds. Thirteen is a bitch.

I never understood the “stuck-up” accusations. I desperately wanted to belong.

It wasn’t my fault books were more interesting than people.

In my memory, I spent elementary school hiding my own books inside of textbooks. I rarely got caught. The few times I was, I didn’t get in trouble. Maybe the teachers knew how boring it all was. Maybe they had their hands full with the kids whose lack of attention was louder, whose grades were lower. I was quiet and low-maintenance. I did light up and participate when they moved on to something interesting. And it’s hard for an educator to knock a kid who loves to read.

In my memory, when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly assessing my own and everyone else’s status in the social order. I knew I wasn’t the core of my group of friends. I wasn’t fun enough, or pretty enough, or free enough. I was self-contained, abstracted, wondering how the flamboyant among us had the courage to draw attention to themselves, and resenting the attention they got. I subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) rejected those whom I thought would make me look bad to my desired friends. And I was rejected (or felt rejected) by kids who forged closer friendships with others than with me.

Even as young as elementary school, I knew: if you aren’t noticed, you don’t make yourself a target. Don’t think that others will like you just because you like them. Don’t display your neediness. Be cool, and funny, and unemotional.

Don’t show your friends that you really like them. Don’t trust your friends with your secrets or your real self. You’re just asking to get hurt.

I always wanted a best friend. I never had one.

As an adult, I am aware of the dichotomy of the previous two paragraphs. I’m just not sure how to overcome a lifetime of knee-jerk distancing.

K. has an open heart, so open it scares me. She is not fickle about her friends. Once she considers you a friend, you are a friend for life. So far, at least, she has wished only the best for her friends. When her close friend beat her out in an art contest in the fall, both were upset because they placed lower than they expected. K. came home upset not just for herself, but for her friend. “That person in second shouldn’t have been ahead of us! R. should have gotten second and me third!”

She’s had difficulties with kids at school on and off, but this is the first time someone she considers a friend has turned on her. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last. There are a lot of years between her and a time when she and her peers have the social skills to accept others’ flaws, or to forgive, or to confront issues head-on. Hopefully, she will learn these skills faster than I did. Faster than I am.

“Name three friendships you have lost over the years.  What did you learn from their loss?” That was the question we were to answer for Bible study this week. In small group discussion, I glossed over my own friendship failures in favor of focusing on K’s current drama. Because the truth is, most friendships I can point to were not lost suddenly—no fight or unconquerable life issue. Just—a slow distancing. Me fumbling around, crippled by an inner sense that I didn’t want to force myself where I might not be wanted. Missed opportunities. Acquaintances that never became friends.  Feeling perpetually on the outside, the observer. Knowing that that feeling may not reflect reality, but feeling it nonetheless.

A pitfall of the writer, and the introvert, I’d guess. Always observing, and analyzing, rarely entering into the moment but storing moments to take out and look at later, to write about, to make them make sense.

Something I’ve learned this week: my instincts about people are good, correct more often than I’d like. I was not very surprised about the source of K.’s drama. The conversation with the girl’s mother went about like I expected it would (thank goodness). I was surprised that K. and her friend so readily reconciled, but I suppose attention spans are not that long in fourth grade.

Which tells me that people are not so unreadable to me. That what gets in the way is…myself.


Andi said...

Not the first time one of your posts has made me cry- has made me re-visit the brokenness of my own heart & of the world we live in & of the people we encounter.

Relationships are hard- introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between. Broken people living with broken people. When it works, even if just for a while, that's a picture of grace.

Dave said...

Hadn't realized how similar our experiences were with school and friendships. (It wasn't just us --- I think Tyroners, at least at that time, were unusually anti-intellectual and intolerent of difference.) Amen to Andi's comment about relationships.