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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Day I Was Left Out

As hard as it may be to believe, I used to be a shy kid. It was probably a combination of the anxiety disorder and our family move from South Dakota to Maryland when I was seven years old. I went from a small Catholic school with about 20 kids in each grade to a massive public school with several hundred kids in each grade. It was somewhat overwhelming, and I basically just shut down. Thinking back on second and third grades, I honestly can't remember having friends. My brain, which is clearly trying to shield my fragile third-grade psyche from the devastation of reality is telling me, "of course you had friends!" but I can't, for the life of me, actually name a single one. Looks like that protective wall of false memories has done its job!

As a side note, I would like to mention that I "won" the Good Citizenship Award (like the consolation prize of boring, polite children - "Congratulations, you are the least disagreeable person in our class!") every year from Kindergarten through 5th grade. So I might not have had friends for a couple years, but at least they didn't all completely hate me. Right? (Shh, it's okay, Third-Grade Laura. Of course they liked you! How could they not like you? You ... had such long, straight hair! And ... you smiled quietly a lot! *Stifles self-esteem with false memories*)

Regardless, the point is that I did not have good friends in my third grade class. One incident in particular stands out as evidence that I was, in fact, an outcast (albeit, a friendly, polite, possibly easily forgettable one).

Although the school itself was large, we were assigned a "homeroom," which was our actual class, and in third grade, as far as I remember, no one switched for any classes (advanced math and language arts classes didn't start till 4th grade, I believe). So I'd been in the same "portable" classroom with the same 30 or so kids for at least 6 months at the time of this incident (our student body size had outgrown the actual school, so they set up about a dozen portable, temporary buildings outside the main building, on school grounds, to accommodate the excess children. We were only supposed to be there for a few months, but we ended up staying there the entire year.)

One Spring day, one of the "popular" (used as liberally as possible to refer to a third-grader) girls passed out invitations to her birthday party to every girl in class, except three of us. I don't know if her mom didn't make her invite all the girls, or if she chose not to give three of us invitations, but the selection process was as cruel as it was swift. One moment, we were returning from recess and settling in our seats, and the next, the Chosen Girls were tittering excitedly, as the rejects tried to not only discover what we were missing out on, but how we could have possibly fallen from the good graces of the beautiful, popular, Jessica.

I've always assumed I wasn't invited because I was shy and quiet. Boring people don't make the best party guests. One of the other girls not invited, Rachel, was also incredibly shy and boring. However, Rachel had a twin sister, Alexis, who was also in our class. And Alexis was invited. Rachel was, understandably, much more devastated about her exclusion than I was. We must learn at a young age the cruelty of other women.

It was the third uninvited girl, though, that made the true sting of the shunning felt. Katie. Poor Katie. Literally, Katie was from a lower-class family. I always felt very sorry for her, as all her clothes were old and worn, she often smelled funky, and the other kids were heartless in their teasing of her. Then again, she didn't help her case much by being one of those strange kids. You know the type. The awkward, weird ones who run up to the popular kids and start talking gibberish at them, because they're oblivious to the social hierarchy of school-aged cliques. They're the type who make the other nerd kids cringe, since we know we'll be associated with them, vicariously, simply for being nerds ourselves, even though we don't want anything to do with their type, either. They're giving us all a bad name.

But then Katie committed the single worst-imaginable in-school offense. She pooped her pants. In class. I don't know the circumstances, except that I was sitting next to her and can confirm that, in spite of her denials of the other children's harsh accusations, she did, in fact, poop in her pants. (Bizarrely, I was also sitting next to a boy in 4th grade who peed his pants. Maybe I have some terrible affect on people in my immediate vicinity, causing them to lose control of their bodily functions. But he had asked the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom, and she denied it. After several minutes, he asked again more urgently, and she again denied it. I, personally, think she should have gotten in serious trouble for making the poor guy sit there till he peed his pants, but, as far as I know, nothing ever happened to her.)

So here we were, lumped in the same group of social-rejects with a girl who pooped her pants. In the unrelentingly cruel world of elementary school social politics, evidently, being shy is just as critical a faux pas as defecating on oneself.

The party was on a Saturday, and the following Monday, I showed up for school, relieved because this traumatic exclusion was now behind us. Oh, how naive was I.

As the other girls in class filtered in and took their seats, not only were they excitedly talking about what an incredible time they'd had at Jessica's Birthday Party (or, as it became known, JBP; it was the social event of the YEAR), but each of them seemed to have donned a new necklace, and they were giddily comparing and showing them off to each other. How could it be that they all coincidentally bought strikingly similar necklaces over the weekend without any form of retail coordination?

I sat perfectly still in my desk, trying to eavesdrop to catch some sort of idea as to the origin of these necklaces. Then I began to notice - each necklace had a set of perfectly adorable beads in the shape of birds. All different colors, strung together amid classic, small necklace beads that brought out the shine and ideal form of each avian creation. Never had I longed for something more than to have my own bird-bead necklace. The minuteness of their beaks struck a chord in my third-grade being, calling out to me with undying desire.

All at once, the glistening birds and the snippets of eager over-the-weekend gossip combined in my brain and it dawned on me: the girls had all made these wearable works of art at JBP. And I also deduced that they had made a vow to wear them every day for the duration of the school year.

I could feel my will to live shattering about me as I looked down at my desk, pretending to go over my completed homework from the weekend in an attempt to hide my devastation. My life would never be complete. My soul felt crushed inside my bare-necked body.

Over the next few weeks, fewer and fewer girls still wore their bird necklaces every day, but envy continued to flutter in my heart every time I caught a glimpse of one. Eventually, third grade drew to a close, I was awarded my certificate of "Good Citizenshipness," and I spent the summer recovering from the painful social blows I'd been dealt.

Then fourth grade started. And who was in my class (besides the guy next to me who peed in his pants on the first day)? None other than Jessica. THE Jessica, of JBP infamy.

So I adopted a new life-approach to friends and being social. I got loud. I tried talking to people and laughing and various other tactics of basic human interaction (besides polite smiling, which I, clearly, had a monopoly on). Lo and behold, my new plan worked. As luck (or intricate planning and methodical social-ladder-climbing) would have it, after just a few weeks of fourth grade, I had befriended the one and only Jessica.

After playing together at nearly every recess, eventually the time came when she was obligated to invite me over to play at her house (although, I have to admit, I doubt I would have even tried to be friends with her if I didn't think there was a possibility that I could wriggle my way into her confidences, be invited to her house, and somehow manage to acquire my own bird necklace). My mom dropped me off, and we played normal fourth-grade girl things. After Barbies in her room, we walked around the neighborhood to spy on a boy in our grade who lived down the street. Then we came back to her house, had a snack, and she asked what else I wanted to do.

Ever aware of the rules of etiquette, I politely said, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" while skirting the obvious: make bird necklaces.

She suggested we play Twister.

Obligingly, I went downstairs with her to get out the Twister game, in spite of the cloud of anxiety closing in around me. I hate games of all kinds. It's not a fear of losing; it's more terror that I'll do something wrong. I'm not sure why it flares up so strongly when it comes to games, but I've always hated every single kind of game there is. They all fill me with overpowering anxiety (I actually can't play or even watch most video games; I get too anxious). Not exactly a two-player game, I was relieved when we found a small plastic bin sitting next to the Twister box.

"What's this?" I said, pointing to the box, already knowing in my heart what it was.

"Oh, those are my beads," she said casually. Then, with a stroke of psychic ingenuity, "do you want to make necklaces?"


"Oh, sure, I guess." I could barely contain the excitement that tried to burst through face. Play cool, Laura. She'll suspect something if you start screaming about bird beads!

We opened the bin to discover small squares of neatly separated beads. Reds, yellows, blues, greens, some little dice beads... but no birds. No. F---ing. Birds.

I started stringing together random colors in no particular order. What's the point, if not to tie down a bird bead through the little hole that ran through its heart to forever tether it to my neck (and soul)?

Jessica was rambling about something. I couldn't concentrate on her tedium. I was too consumed with the twice-dashed hopes of a young, recently socially-revived fourth-grade girl.

I dug my fingers into the red beads again and stopped suddenly. There she was. Hidden among the scarlets, maroon, and fire engine reds. My very own bird bead. Left over, abandoned for nearly a year after the great fete that was JBP, the one remaining, glorious bird bead.

"You've come to me, Sasha," I whispered under my breath.

"Did you say something?"

"Uh, no," I contemplated stealing Sasha and sliding her secretively into my pocket. But what would Jessica think when I wore the necklace to school and she recognized the rogue, rosey bird, fluttering gently between my collarbones, perfectly flattering my non-existent bust-line?

"Hey, I found this little bird bead. Could I use it?"

"Haha, sure!" Jessica said, barely acknowledging the significance of this forever flightless symbol of my restoration of hope in humanity. "I got those last year for my Birthday Party, haha. I thought we'd used them all. We all made bird necklaces, haha. But I guess you can make one now, too! Haha!"

Laugh it up, Bitch.

I didn't stay friends with Jessica after fourth grade (we were in different fifth grade homerooms, which is practically the same thing as moving to different countries, learning different languages, and being forbidden by our parents to associate with one another, or else). But I believe the bird necklace is still in my closet at my dad's house. I'll have to remember to get it the next time I visit him. I guess the old saying holds true: Make new friends, but keep the old (except Jessica); some are silver, and some... are birds.

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