They say, whoever "they" are, that true human nature can be observed in children-those who are too young to philosophically examine the affect that society's handprint has on them. Welcome to the world of lower school, a world in which teachers and parents can examine the miniature society that the students have created. Like most civilizations, our third grade kingdom was divided into two distinct classes: the "populars," who made up the majority of the group, and the people like me, the outcasts, none of which banded together to form another group, but sat alone eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, desperately hoping to become a part of the popular world.
Picture this: on the first day at her new school, a young girl walks in wearing a pair of jeans, sneakers, and her favorite pink t-shirt. The scent of cleaning material, pencil shavings, and new plastic hovers over the room. She timidly scuttles into the classroom, which seems to give off a faint yellowish tint of false security. She finds her desk among the other tiny little girls, all wearing flouncey skirts with matching bows bigger than their heads. Now picture a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti Plain, surrounded by sleek tigers who can practically smell the fear in her eyes. I was the wounded gazelle, and this was Lower School. All I wanted to do was to fit in, and that is what I set out to do.
Somehow, by a display of divine intervention, I survived the first month of Lower School. Still, my existence there was not without problems. The tiny third grade kingdom had already congealed like the Jell-O in our lunch bags, and to the "populars" I must have seemed like an enemy army threatening to upset their delicate balance of power. However, one girl from the kingdom of popular reached out into enemy territory. Her name was Sarah, a pinky-thin blonde girl, just like the rest of her group.
"I'll be your friend," she said, "if you tell our teacher how nice I am." She offered, and I accepted. After all, I was in no position to turn away a chance at leaving the land of the outcasts. So I went up to Mrs. Mendelssohn and told her just how much I liked Sarah. Mrs. Mendelssohn smiled and let out a sigh of relief. The studious new girl had finally stepped out of her shell and made a friend. On the inside I had this funny feeling, comparable only to when something tastes too sweet. I was fulfilling a wish I thought I had always wanted, and this victory felt almost too good.
"How did you get to be so cool?" I asked Sarah one day as we walked toward the kickball game that the boys- but only the popular boys- were playing. Sarah turned and looked at me, her blonde hair whipping across her face.
"When I was in Pre-K, I wanted to prove that I was popular to the girls, so I sang the song Poison Ivy one day during recess," she replied. She proceeded to give me singing lessons, making up terms that I, a piano student at the time, knew didn't exist. We were both singing our hearts away, she to reminisce the past and I to desperately hope for a better future. It was a few days later, as I was wearing my favorite shirt- a pink one with cats and overly cheery flowers-that I noticed she didn't sit with me at lunch. The wounded gazelle heart rose in my chest, and I wondered am I not skinny enough? Am I not pretty enough? I tiptoed up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned slowly.
"Why won't you sit with me at lunch?" I asked. A sudden chill prickled my skin as the other girls giggled and her eyes turned cold. She looked at my shirt.
"'Cuz we like dogs and blue is our favorite color, not pink and cats." More shrill giggling assaulted my ears. Fighting back the waterworks that I knew would ensue, I went down to the end of the table and sat to eat my lunch. Not even my pink, blue, and green vinyl lunchbox with horses and butterflies could cheer me up today. As awful as their rejection felt, as mean as I knew they were, this feeling that I didn't belong only made my desire to become popular stronger. As I sat next to the icky boys, I looked down the table at the popular fortress I had tried so hard to breach. Sarah looked back at me, and we held a stare for a few seconds. I finally looked down and concentrated on what I was going to do to win them over.
Sarah approached me after lunch. "I'll be your friend if you tell Mrs. Mendelssohn how nice I am," she said. I heard those words for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time, I went to tell our teacher of the wonderful fictitious friendship I had with Sarah. She smiled, unable to see through my lies.
On the inside I was changing. "Where did you get your skirt? It's pretty," I timidly inquired. There I got the vital information: the cool clothes come from an expensive store called Limited Too. I've got to go to Limited Too; I've got to go to Limited Too. The rhythmic chant echoed off my brain. Donned in pricey blue clothes, I headed to school. Today was THE DAY, I thought. Today was the day I would become popular.
Sarah approved. "See how nice I am? Go tell Mrs. Mendelssohn. You're gonna to be popular like me," she said. I had gathered up my sword and shield, flying the colors of the land of popular. I would knit myself into the fabric of their clique once and for all. Once again Mrs. Mendelssohn happily received the information, glad to see the transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan. I was fitting in, wedging a piece of what I thought was myself into their puzzle, it seemed. My new favorite shirt was blue with a cartoon puppy dog on the front. I approached Sarah at lunch, setting my tray down beside her.
"That's Mary's seat," she said simply. I moved across the table. "That's Abby's seat," she stated again. I played musical chairs until finally I ended up right back where I had started at the beginning of the school year. Apparently I was the one puzzle piece that, try as you might, you just can't make it fit. Had my transformation been all for nothing? Taking a deep breath, I swallowed the salty taste in my mouth. I was not going to cry in front of my new friends.
Sarah seemed to think my encounter with the popular girls had gone quite well, and apparently Mrs. Mendelssohn had too. Our librarian's monthly publication came out the next day, and on the very back page was a picture and an article about how Sarah had welcomed a new student into the Stratford family. Inside the article were quotes I said but now realized that I had never meant. A very happy Sarah skipped up to me after school. "See! Will you go tell Mrs. Mendelssohn how nice I am? I got you into the newspaper!"
Finally, I said no.