“Shal, it’s time we branch out.”
I knew what she meant. Several days earlier, we had talked about the idea of ‘branching out’ in our friendship, of including others into our sacred little circle. I had been agreeable, because I half-way thought she was just thinking out loud and hadn’t really meant it, or perhaps we would branch out but I would remain her favorite. What I hadn’t realized was that she was charitably preparing me for the inevitable, that our exclusive relationship had to expand to others if it would remain healthy.
I was devastated.
It was like my heart had been ripped from my chest, and my very security and only hope of enjoying school life had been abruptly, and unmercifully, snatched away from me. Didn’t she know?? Didn’t she know I was a nerd? That I was suffering from the ravages of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and depression, and that I would never be accepted by the other classmates? Did she know she was leaving me to die a horrible, slow death, day after day? How could she do this to me?
I dejectedly went to the back of the line, alone, feeling like my world had ended. I took her to mean that our friendship was over. I simply would not, could not, compete with Jane, and my friend has chosen someone else over me.
It didn’t help that on my way home from school in our family car, the song “This Is For All the Lonely People” came on the radio. My mother was so understanding of me and of my rejection, and comforted me as my tears flowed.
But I still had to go to school the next day, even though my entire world as I knew it had ended. What I most feared was Lunch. Yes, Lunch with a capital L. Lunch was where all the drama took place, where who you sat with determined everything… to adults, lunch may just be a time when you eat a meal. To seventh graders, it was where the hierarchy was determined, and who your friends truly were.
I had to face Lunch alone.
Or worse: sit near the teacher.
And so I sat near the teacher, trying not to cry from my intense loneliness, and trying not to gag as I watched the teacher peel a boiled egg with her long fingernails. The egg stunk. Just like my life.
I tried to bite into my peanut butter sandwich, and pretend everything was OK, gulping down bite after bite alone with salty tears. I tried to be strong. But inside I was dying. Would I spend the rest of the year like this? Not fitting into any group? Sitting by the teacher? Alone?
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone getting up and moving her lunch tray, and walking toward my direction. She moved away from her ‘group’, and came alone, and proceeded to sit across from me. I slowly lifted my eyes, and met the face of the girl whom I had defended so many years ago. The girl who was being picked on cruelly in second grade…
We had never really become friends. But she saw me, and perhaps something reminded her of herself in second grade. Now I was in her shoes. I was being rejected. And she took compassion on me.
That act of sitting across from me so that I would not be alone would remain forever etched in my memory. I gained strength from that Lunch period. Mercy and compassion had come full-circle.
And it was from this point, that I started to mature in a different way than the rest of my classmates.
I started to become incapable of ignoring the lonely and the hurt people I would encounter in school, and beyond…
…to be continued…