I wrote the following letter in December of 2003 when i heard from my mom that the Gateway Men’s Chorus was soliciting writings from people about being outsiders in school. Their call became an opportunity for me to pen something i’d been wanting to write for a while — and something that i dearly would’ve loved to have received when i was younger.
It’s here because it might be relevant to someone you know and because i want to publish it in a non-LGBTQ-specific book for young teenagers, something that parents would get their pre-teens or early teenagers. If you know of anyone putting together a book like that, please let me know!
To That Fifth Grade Girl Eating Alone in the Cafeteria:
I wanted to write and tell you that i know how you feel. I know exactly what it’s like to eat lunch by yourself day after day. I know what it’s like to be invited to sit at someone else’s table only because she pities you. I know what it’s like to read a book before class because none of the other girls will talk to you. I know what it’s like to love your teachers and to strive to do well in school — and to have that make your classmates dislike you even more. I know what it’s like to hear laughter and to be sure that it’s about you. I know what it’s like to watch, left out, as the two other new girls make friends. I know what it’s like to have this sense that you’re different, to never really fit in, to feel like everyone hates you, and to not really know why.
I also want to tell you that, in everything you’re going through now, there are lots of things that you’re right about:
- You’re right that it’s your peers’ fault that you’re friendless. You don’t have to change who you are to be okay; you are already a fantastic human being. You’re kind, gentle, caring, generous, smart (even if you’re not doing so well in French and Math), a good singer, a book-lover, and so many other wonderful things. And if your classmates don’t like it, then they’re just being close-minded.
- You’re right that you shouldn’t drink, smoke, date boys, have sex, starve yourself, wear makeup, hate your teachers or classes, do drugs, or buy expensive (and ugly!) clothes to get friends. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out, eating pizza, playing games, singing, or just talking to have fun. If the other girls think that they have to ruin their bodies or spend lots of money to have a good time — well, you’re too smart for that kind of stuff.
- You’re right that you’re okay just as you are. You don’t have to conform or try to fit in to be a good person. Popularity isn’t the only goal; it isn’t even a good goal if it means changing who you are or being mean to others. Lots of really great people in this world were never popular in school. Hold onto what you already know: that you shouldn’t change to get someone’s friendship. If you do, that person isn’t really your friend. So stick to the goal that you already have: to just keep plugging away and being yourself.
But I need to point out that there are a few things you’re incorrect about, too:
- I know that sometimes you worry about being the shortest person or oldest person in your class. Don’t! There’s nothing wrong with either, and both of them make you unique. Yes, they make you stand out sometimes, too. But that’s not always a bad thing. Don’t forget that you’ve got the first birthday every school year because of when you were born! And being short, well, that’s just something that’s very special about you. If people tease you and are mean about it, just do what you already do so well with your siblings: ignore ’em!
- Next year, when you realize that dad is a horrible sexist pig who sits around at home while mom does all the cooking and cleaning — It’s true that he does almost nothing around the house except “manly” things like hanging pictures and killing bugs. But he’s one of the kindest, gentlest, most generous sexist pigs out there. Like everyone, he’s got his faults. But his good qualities far outweigh his bad ones. So cut him some slack: he’s not nearly as good as you at questioning things — including the values he was taught as a kid; but he’s at least as good as you, if not better, at loving other people, especially his children.
- In a year or so when you start deciding that mom and dad (but especially mom) are stupid — they’re not. You’re going to go through a period where it’s like you live on two different planets. When they don’t understand you, try to remember that they’re not teenagers. They think like they’re going-on-40; you think like you’re going-on-15. It’s just different. They don’t completely understand what it’s like to be your age anymore. And even when they do, they’re going to keep on thinking like adults. Yeah, they can still make you do what they want. But when you get into a fight with them, they’re not always the ones who are wrong.
And here are some other things about your future that i know for sure:
- You aren’t always going to struggle with French or Math class. In fact, someday, they’re going to make sense to you. You might even start to like them and be good in them.
- You aren’t always going to hate your siblings or have to babysit them. One day, it won’t seem so bad to have two younger brothers and a younger sister, and they’re going to turn out to be really neat, interesting, fun people.
- More importantly, you’re going to discover lots of things about yourself as you keep on living and learning. Some of them will surprise you; some of them won’t. You’re going to figure out why it is that you feel so separate from everyone else who’s your age. It’s going to make a lot of sense to you, and you’re going to love it. No, i can’t tell you what it is right now. When you’re ready, you’ll discover it. Just rest assured that there are layers to you that are going to be a lot of fun to figure out, that will make you proud, and that are going to make the rest of your life so much easier because you’ll finally understand what’s going on inside of you.
- Grade school isn’t the whole world, and you’re not the only girl (or boy) who doesn’t have any friends. There are people out there — some of whom are your own age — who know that what’s most important in life isn’t the clothes they wear or if they have a boyfriend or counting the number of friends they have. These people know that other things are so much more valuable: stuff like learning, how kind you are to people, how generous you are with the friends whom you do have, how much you care for people who have lives that are different from your own, and how you treat the earth. You might not have anyone in your life like that right now, especially anyone your own age. But those people do exist, and you will find them.
- You’re going to get friends. Soon. And as the years go by, you’ll gain more and more of them, both at school and outside of school. You’re going to discover places where people accept you and where you’ll have a lot of fun. You’ll have friends your own age who understand you, and you’re going to connect deeply with a few of them.
Even right now, you are and will continue to be surrounded by lots and lots of people who love you. Some of them will be from school, some will be from other activities, some will be from your family, some will be adults, and some will be kids. But you will never be without people around you who love you and would do anything for you.
- Finally, all the stuff you’re going through right now will make you a better person than all of your classmates who are popular, who are mean to you, who ignore you, who call you names, who tease you, or who don’t think that there’s anything or anyone in the world more important than themselves or how much their next outfit is going to cost. You’re always going to remember what it’s like to be friendless, to sit alone in the cafeteria, and to sometimes read books because no one wants to talk to you. All of that is going to make you very aware of how you treat other people and very sympathetic to how others feel. You’re going to want to make the world a better place so that no one else ever has to feel the way that you do now. And that’s something you can be very, very proud of!
How do I know all this stuff? It’s a long story. But trust me. It’s going to be okay. From here on out, each year is going to get better. Yes, bad stuff will still happen; that’s a part of life, just like the good stuff is. But you’ll never again be as friendless as you are now. In the meantime, while you’re feeling so alone and hated at school, know that things are, eventually, going to be great and that i’m rooting for you every step of the way.
You’re one amazing, phenomenal, wonderful young person. I’m proud to know that, in whatever ways, we share so much.
I wish you peace and am sending you a long-distance hug.
Someone Who Understands
(Submitted to the Gateway Men’s Chorus, December 5, 2003)