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Thursday, 22 March 2001

Fitting In

Written by  Tamra Dawn

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If you're worried about a teenaged son or daughter who doesn't seem to fit in....take heart - and read on:

What I didn't know at the time was that if you think there's something wrong with you, others will too.

When I was already a mom with kids of my own, I re-met Anne, a girl who had been in my fifth grade class and every class after that but who had been so quiet that I barely knew she existed. She came over for dinner one night with her kids and my husband asked her how she had liked the kids at the schools we had gone to.

Her answer was simple-- but to me it was stunning.

"I didn't have anything in common with them," she said.

Here we were, two girls in the same school who both felt out of it. But I had blamed myself. I thought must not look right, act right, BE right because I wasn't popular. But Anne was equally outside of things (or - on the fringe) and she didn't for one minute think it was her fault.

It was one of those "Aha!" moments when things fall into place and you learn something important about yourself. What Anne said had also been true for me. I didn't have much in common with the kids in my new school. (I had moved there the summer before fifth grade.) I still played with dolls and they wanted to be grown up. I wanted to roller skate with boys and they wanted to kiss them. Later, in junior high and high school, I cared more about ideas and they cared more about looks and clothes.

But instead of seeing things for what they were as Anne did, I blamed myself and my self-esteem - that most important of qualities -- suffered.

What I didn't know at the time was that if you think there's something wrong with you, others will too.

It's a subtle thing. Your feelings about yourself get projected out into the world, like invisible vibes that other people feel as well. It becomes a vicious circle - you don't feel accepted, you blame yourself and think you're just wrong in some way, others pick up on that, they stay away from you and you feel even more rejected, feel worse about yourself, get more rejected, and on and on.


The summer between fourth and fifth grade, we moved from West Hollywood, a neighborhood of lower middle class families living in apartments to Beverlywood, where almost everyone lived in big houses with backyards, front yards side yards and new cars in the driveway.

In West Hollywood (don't get fooled by the name. It was next door to the real Hollywood but it wasn't in the least glamorous), I fit in. The kids in my class were friendly and there was always someone to play with outside. I had moved to that neighborhood only the year before, but my first day at school., Doreen, a genuinely nice, well-liked girl in my class "adopted" me. I still remember that first day at recess: She put her arm around me and took me around the playground, introducing me to everyone as her friend.

Soon after Doreen, came Paula and Eleanor and Larry and others. I played at their houses after school, went to lots of birthday parties, always had someone to eat with at lunch at to play with at recess. I even liked my teacher that year. Miss Russell wore pretty clothes and smiled a lot. She, too, was genuinely nice.

Then social disaster struck. My parents bought a house across town. I insisted that my mother take me to the principals' office at school to tell them that I wanted to keep going to Melrose Avenue Elementary -but they told us it was impossible.

After we moved, I had a great summer. I could have killed my father for waylaying the girl he saw walking past our yard into the house next door and telling her to come meet his daughter who was her age. But that awkward moment (I had just washed my hair and had it wrapped in a towel and didn't want anyone to see me looking like that!) bloomed into a friendship and Claudia and I played together every day that summer and were friends for years to come. We played Monopoly games that went on for days, built huge houses of cards on her living room carpet, traded Nancy Drew books and lay across her bed, taking turns tickling each other's backs, switching every time the radio played three songs.

When we played handball against my garage door or roller-skated around the block, we were joined by Ricky, a cute boy who lived around the corner. He skated with us and chased us and told us dirty jokes that made us feel really grown up. Once, he skated up behind me and pulled down my zipper. I quickly zipped it back up and pretended to be mad but I really wasn't. In fact, I liked it. He paid attention to me, he clearly liked me and we had a great time together.

Off to a good start, right?


Well, all that changed once school started. I was so happy to find out that Ricky was in my class. But now that we were around other kids, he acted completely differently toward me. Suddenly, he wasn't my friend anymore.

When he wasn't ignoring me, he was making fun of me. We walked home in the same direction so he knew I loved to crunch the fall leaves under my shoes - I would go out of my way to do so - and he teased me about it non-stop in front of the other kids in our class. I was embarrassed and hurt - and SO disappointed. Here I thought I was going into this class full of strangers with at least one friend - and he had suddenly and without warning turned into an enemy.

The kids at Castle Heights Elementary were very different than the kids at Melrose. They didn't seem to play much, except ball games at recess. They - or at least the girls -- were less concerned with games than with how their hair looked and with wearing the clothes that were the most in. They tried to be as gown up as possible, carrying purses and rolling their socks down so low it looked like they weren't wearing any. They weren't very nice and they weren't very friendly. Not a great place to be new.

There were the popular girls - the ones who were both pretty AND smart and who wore just the right clothes. Then there were other girls who were already paired up with best friends whom they sat next to and ate with and spent all their time with. I did find a couple of friends - girls who weren't already taken and who weren't in the in-crowd. But to tell you the truth, they were more friends of convenience than true soul-mates. I needed friends. Marcia and Annette were willing and available and nice enough. But they were friendships made out of lack of choice rather than out of choice and so they weren't as much fun or as satisfying as my friendships the year before had been - the ones that grew naturally out of mutual liking and acceptance rather than out of desperation.

Although we had moved every year from first grade to fifth, as luck would have it my parents finally decided to stay put and we stayed in that house in Beverlywood till I graduated high school. That meant that I went to junior high and high school with the same kinds of kids. I always had two or three friends but they were like Annette and Marsha - friends chosen because I needed to be with someone, not because I adored them.

That's how things went for years. I felt bad about myself but never breathed a word if it to anyone. Certainly not to my mom, who didn't understand anything. Not even to my Aunt Charlie who had been president of a social club at the same high school I went to years before and whom I adored. I was too proud.


Then, on the first day of 11the grade, I noticed Anne in my last period class. She was excited about this group of kids she had gotten involved with over the summer. She started telling me about them and the teacher separated us for talking. But we walked home together after school that day and she told me more. She had become involved in a project in which high school students who did well in school were tutoring elementary school kids in a poor part of town. The tutors had been trained together and had formed a kind of group.

We kept walking home together and every day she told me more. They were all going to the movies together that Saturday night and Anne asked if I wanted to come.

I went and watched as these kids - 30 of them from all over the city - met in front of the theater, everyone hugging and kissing and shrieking with excitement every time someone else arrived. I envied them and wished I could be part of something like that.

I eventually joined the tutoring group and became part of that social scene. Suddenly, I was accepted. Suddenly, I was central. Suddenly, I had a large group of friends, all of whom I liked, all of whom I had a lot in common with. My sense of myself changed drastically, but most important, I was now happy.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I had found the proper fit for me. And that made all the difference.


Last modified on Tuesday, 05 April 2011 10:36
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Tamra Dawn

Tamra Dawn is a pseudonym.

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