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Lessons I Learned at the Cafeteria Table

My oldest boy had a terrible – I mean, loathsome first week of school. He transitioned to Middle School – the most traumatizing school years, according to my American friends (and Greg Heffley). The first day,  I waited with baited breath at the end of the driveway for Keaton’s school bus lights to flash and slow down at the end of our street. I wanted to hear all about his first day of 5th grade. As he exited the bus and walked towards me, I smiled and waved and was ready to grab his back pack for him. I wasn’t ready enough. He whipped it at me, berated me for embarrassing him with my existence, ran into the house, flopped down on the couch and burst into tears. I took that as a signal that the first day hadn’t been too rosy.

 

Misery and no Company

Turns out it was completely overwhelming. New halls and multiple teachers to learn, a combination lock that near had to be cut off the locker, a schedule fit for an army and a loud, sweltering 45 minute bus ride home. It was a lot thrown at a ten year old all at once. He wasn’t ready for it. We weren’t ready for it.

Worst of all, he hadn’t made any new friends, and the ones he had from elementary school had been dispersed or had moved on to new friends.

While the second day was a hairsbreath easier than the first, I was beginning to catch on that the friendship – or lack there of – component was what was really weighing on him. Over our dinner that night, the full anguish was unleashed. Keaton was feeling left out – like he was the misfit kid who no one wanted. Yes, the lateness was embarrassing and the lockers were frustrating, but everything felt worse because he was in it alone.

As he shared his feelings, I could tell that my usual “problem solver” of a husband was feeling his pain too and, just let him express it. He identified. I did too. I think we can all identify. It was all I could do to not burst into tears at the dining room table. Instead, I choked back the pain, and proceeded to share this story with him:

 

Cafeteria Chameleon

Long after my high school years, I ran into a girl who had been in my class, on my soccer team and sat a few seats down from me in orchestra. I honked on the clarinet, she, whistled the flute. We chatted a bit, and in the middle of our back and forth, she said something to me that left me thinking. She said,

“You know, you could have had a seat at any table in the cafeteria, Danielle

Certainly, she didn’t mean that I was the most popular one in the room. That was clearly not the case. What I realized she had meant, was that I would have been allowed in at any table. I suppose it’s because I had the ability to adapt – to engage all types of people. I fit in fine with the athletes, the brainiacs, the artsy drama crowd, Student Council crew, and obviously Christian Club was my jam. Bottom line, I could find a way to fit at any table.

The thing is, that while I could find my way in, for a time I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt like an outsider barging in. I didn’t get all the inside jokes and I wasn’t an automatic invite to all the Friday night parties.

 

Fifth Grade Fortnite

Not belonging is painful, I told him. It is so painful, in fact, that sometimes we do crazy – even dishonorable things in attempt to belong.

We told Keaton that everyone fears not belonging. We’re all scared we won’t snatch a seat in life’s game of “musical chairs”. We explained that all those kids who were leaving him behind weren’t meaning to hurt him specifically, and he shouldn’t take it personally. Rather, they were acting out of fear; scraping and clawing to get the last chair, and not be the one left out of the circle. It was the middle school Hunger Games. Fifth grade Fortnite.

 

Empathy is the Best Policy

But, we know that “every man (or woman) for themselves” is not the slogan that we should live by, right? We’ve been taught better; that it should be “Treat others the way you would like to be treated“. We believe that in theory, but often our follow through is less than consistent.

I thought that night about the times I’ve felt excluded or that I didn’t belong. I also remembered times that when I did have a sense of belonging, I was either oblivious to or apathetic about anyone outside “the circle”. Empathy hasn’t always been my policy.

The second week, Keaton began to find his way. He made a friend or two and found his place. He was a much happier kid. When I asked him about the friendship dynamics, he admitted to me that there was a timid boy who he had chatted with the week prior when he needed a friend, who seemed to like that fact that Keaton was paying attention to him. Once Keaton had integrated though, the boy was left out to dry.

Keaton hadn’t meant to hurt the boy on the fringe, he simply wasn’t mindful of him anymore. He didn’t need him anymore. It was then that it hit me – this is our default. It’s our human nature to simply think about: me.

 

“You Before Me” is a Safe Place to be

That day I challenged my son, and now ladies, I challenge you:

Be more concerned about being a friend than making a friend. Be the one who looks for the lonely and rescues the recluse. Be the one that invites others in; shares her seat “at the table”.

But, don’t stop there. Know that just allowing the seat won’t fully liberate the lonely. Make them feel welcomed and valued. This doesn’t come natural ladies. It takes conscious effort on our part. It requires us to take our eyes and our thoughts off of ourselves, and focus them on others. You may be cringing at the thought of opening up your circle. That seat is your comfort zone. We’re all a little bit scared and need to know we belong. But, don’t fear – when you invite another one in, you won’t lose your place – the table just grows.

So, three weeks into the school year, Keaton is a little less traumatized and a little less on the fringe and still wanting to belong. But, my daily question is not “did you make a friend today”, it is “who were you a friend to?” Being a great friend to someone gives us better odds of having great friends. And, we can handle anything in life easier when we handle it together.

 

 

Matthew 25:35 “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me

 

 

 

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