I remember the day it became painfully obvious to me that I was different from the other kids in school. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade. In a break from our academic activities, our teacher Mrs. Heaton suggested we play the “telephone” (or “pass it on”) game, where one person comes up with a word or phrase and whispers it to the next person, who whispers it to the next, and so on, until the last person has to repeat the word which has inevitably changed to something silly. On this particular day I was feeling very proud of myself for learning about different beetle families from my father, and I thought it would be really funny to use the scientific name of a beetle in the game. “Tenebrionidae,” I whispered to the girl in front of me. “What?!” I repeated the word again, and then waited eagerly as the message went around the room and came out completely mangled at the end. I don’t know what I was thinking: that everyone would think I was cool for coming up with such a hard one? When I told everyone the original word, there were lots of groans. “You’re weird,” one boy said. And thus I entered nerd-dom.
Of course, almost every adult I know has childhood tales of woe like mine. Some I have a hard time taking seriously, especially when a friend who was very popular in high school tells me stories about feeling excluded and uncool. Sure, the stories are probably true, but having been stuck in the outskirts of “cool” for so many years I still find it hard to be sympathetic. Academics seem to have had lots of outcast experiences as kids, although I’d venture to say that most are proud of the “nerd” label now.
Memories of our elementary school years have come flooding back to my husband and me recently as my son goes through his own social angst. He’s only seven, but it seems like the social games and awkwardness among kids has already started. Last week my son came home from school looking unusually down, and after some comfort time with his Legos he revealed that he couldn’t find anyone to play with on the playground during lunchtime recess. “It’s always that way,” he said. “No one wants to play with me.” The unstructured 35 minutes of playtime outside after lunch reminds me of a giant cocktail party for kids (minus the booze, of course). Little groups get together for games and then shuffle around to form new groups. The loners wander the perimeter of the play field trying to fit in somewhere, and sometimes it’s hard to find the kids with whom one most wants to connect. At least that’s my interpretation of my son’s stories, which I embellish in my mind with my own anxieties about navigating the grade school years.
Don’t get me wrong—my husband and I aren’t fretting about my son’s playground blues all the time (although we’ve had a little trouble sleeping at night). We’ve kept up a brave, confident front, and I share with him the same kind of “really” helpful and effective advice my mother gave me when I had trouble making friends: Just go up to them and say “Hi, can I play with you?”
It’s difficult not to overreact — we parents have our entire personal histories on which to reflect, and we fear experiencing again through our kids the bad side of school social interactions. But things might not necessarily go the same way for our children. Privately, my husband and I blow these little incidents way out of proportion, but we remind ourselves that the important thing is that our son feels comfortable telling us about his concerns. If we overreact, he’ll be afraid of worrying us and won’t confide anymore. And sometimes we just have to be patient and wait a couple of days for the full story. This coda came a few days later: “No one wanted to play with me. Oh, but then I found two friends and we stomped on leaves and mud and pretended to be making mashed potatoes. That was fun!”