When I was eleven, I was short and fat. A girl in my math class told me I smelled. That was the year people realized what popularity was. Some kids were deemed cool and other kids were called losers. At Lakeview Middle School, it was pretty clear which category I belonged to. I wasn’t rich, pretty, athletic, or anything else that matters to a bunch of sixth graders who don’t know anything about the world yet.
Lunch was the worst. In the 6th grade, no one wants to be associated with a loser. They’re afraid that somehow it will infect them and bring down their own tenuous status. No one saved me a seat at lunch. Sometimes there was space for me and sometimes there wasn’t. When the table was full, I ate in the library.
In 7th grade, the most popular boy in school asked me out. When I said, “yes” his friends laughed about it loudly at their lunch table. Boys like him didn’t date girls like me.
I read. A lot. And volunteered at the nursing home by my house. I developed anxious habits and compulsive behaviors that I still fight to this day.
The first day of 8th grade, God intervened and placed my locker next to a tall girl with long, dyed hair named Amanda. I can’t remember why or how we started talking but Amanda invited me to eat with her friends at lunch. Eventually, her friends became my friends and for the first time in my life, I belonged somewhere.
We were misfits. Too uncool for other groups so we made our own group. We called ourselves “The Rebel Children of Conformity” and even made shirts. We all had one, ironic I know. There was Erika, who was a dancer and made her own clothes. She was free-spirited, too unique and beautiful for the suburbs in Ohio. Tracey, who rode horses and had a trailer in her driveway. Katie who wore all black. Alison, Jenni, Sarah, Erin. We loved Something Corporate and punk shows.
In so many ways, inclusivity saved my life. I think I’d be a very different person if Amanda had never talked to me. My loneliness probably would have manifested, at best into insecurity, and at worst into some sort of crippling anger or depression.
It didn’t though because one day in 8th grade Amanda invited me to eat with her friends at lunch. Instead, I grew up into a fairly confident adult with a soft spot for the underdog. More importantly, I was able to become friends with different groups of people. Being excluded as a kid gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life which was the ability to realize that everyone is bringing something to the table. That people are complex, but if you try, most people will give you a reason to love them. Most people just want to be accepted and loved. Inclusivity has become one of the single most defining parts of my personality. It’s the reason I like to host big parties and invite absolutely everyone. It’s the reason I hate exclusive, fancy schmancy bars that make you stand in line for no good reason and turn people away. It’s the reason I went to protest against the Muslim ban.
It’s the reason I’m writing this. We’re at a weird crossroads right now. Not only in the United States but all over the world.
I rewrote this article a million times, trying to explain how this relates to the bigger picture, because it does in so many ways. I failed every time. I’m hoping some writer, more talented than I, will come along and do a better job than I’m doing. I’m worried that my words will be misinterpreted and used out of context. Luckily I’ve learned not to read the comments.
All I can say is that I’m noticing groups based on politics, gender, race, religion, etc. are forming and many of these groups are becoming very exclusionary and closed. There’s a sense of “You’re either on my team or you’re not.” I gotta be honest, that’s scary. Historically speaking, policies that exclude people based on religion, race, etc. haven’t ended well for anyone really. I’m watching people battle on Facebook, spewing out hurtful insults and I wonder how this is manifesting in schools across the country. I wonder if an immigrant fifth-grader in Idaho is now eating in the library alone because no one saved her a seat at lunch. I wonder if a Muslim child is being picked on at recess. I wonder, if in some middle school in New York, a Trump supporter echoing the beliefs of his parents, is being called a “moronic idiot.” I wonder how all of these children will fare and if this will somehow manifest into anger or depression or something worse. Who will these people grow up to be?
Who are we growing up to be?
A few days ago I texted Amanda to tell her I was writing this article and how grateful I was for her friendship. “You always have a seat at my table, kid,” she responded. I smiled first because I knew it was true and then cried because I knew my life played out so differently because of the truth in that statement.
So I’m hoping we can remember to raise our children to be kind and inclusive. I hope that we ourselves remember to be kind and inclusive, though it’s easy to forget when you feel righteous in your anger. I know, I’ve forgotten many times. I’m hoping we all remember how important it might be for someone in the long-run.
And if you have nowhere else to sit, there’s room at my table.