I was Google-chatting with my sis this morning and had a remembery that gave me new perspective on the work I do today.
Waaayyyy back in 6th grade (think early 80's... acid wash jeans...leg warmers... neon sweatshirt with "Frankie Says Relax" emblazoned on it....) I experienced a pivotal social moment. Didn't we all?
I went to a small school in a small town. There were about 80 kids in my grade. Most of us started in Kinder together and would graduate together down the road. New kids were either celebrities or pariahs. M. was a celebrity. She was related to a D.--a popular kid, and she had a commanding presence. She had style, she had sass, and she was exotic. The girls in the three 6th grade classes followed her around, hung on her every word, did her bidding.
I hung out on the fringes--feeling like I should want to be in the mix, hampered by shyness, and not sure I wanted to be a full-on lemming. I watched, smiled when I was supposed to, and worked very hard to appear that I belonged there while I decided if I did. If the weather was acceptable (i.e. not frozen or hailing), we were outside. The group would go en masse to the furthest edge of the school grounds--as far as we could go without being called back. M. would stand in the center and hold court. At about that time each day the high school vocational classes would have to walk near us to get to their next class. Social norms would dictate that high schoolers walking by a gaggle of 6th grade girls would have the upper hand. They didn’t. M. was that good. One boy in particular struck her as a target and she honed in.
I remember that he walked alone--separate from the rest. He shuffled by each day with his head down. M. didn't like his hair or the way he walked. She altered the words of "Wild Thing"--directing us all to sing along with her as he walked by. I remember the boy put his hood up and tried get further away. This happened for a few days and I watched Wild Thing shrink and try new ways to avoid us each day.
This was before the tragedies of school violence reminded us to teach kids about diversity, bullying, and well… basic humanity. I'd spent my elementary years struggling with a bleeding heart sense of empathy--I knew it wasn't cool to care and I was trying to do what was socially expected as I entered middle school.
I lasted about three days.
On the day I sealed my fate, Wild Thing had his sweatshirt hood up, his hands in his pockets, and he was slinking along at the furthest edge of the walkway. M- called out to him to take his hood off, to come closer to hear the song, to dance for us. I heard my own voice say:
There was a deafening silence. A sea of 6th grade, blue-shadowed eyes turned toward me. A few girls took a step back.
M: “…What did you say!?”
Me (much less forcefully): "I said stop it… that's mean."
M: "You stop it! Don't be bogus. Sing the song."
Me (seriously doubting my choice): "I just think it's mean..”
M (turning her whole powerful self toward me): "If you say that again I'll make everyone stop talking to you forever."
Me (after a pause where I heard audible gasps and considered my own mortality): "…I... don't care. Stop it."
M (shocked pause): "That's it. Get out of here. They’ll never talk to you again."
And they didn’t. She was true to her word. The girls of the 6th grade avoided me for most of that year.* I had a lot of time to doubt my decision. There was no undoing it, so I don't know if I would have if I could have.
And here I sit today--the Director of Student Services for a small school district (though over ten times the size of where I grew up). Apparently I knew exactly who I was that day. My over-empathetic heart decided for me that it was worth the fight to protect those that had a raw deal. I chose my side and while I didn't remember that until today, I see now that I am exactly where I intended to be.
Do you have a pivotal moment you may have forgotten? One that gives you a new perspective on where you are today?
*Lest you think I was entirely solitary, H. moved into town a few months later and was labeled a pariah due to her braces and her odd personality. We became friends of necessity.