It sucks to be the new kid. Lonely and intimidating. It feels like everyone is noticing you, snap-judging you and the dorky whiter-than-white shorts you chose to wear, but really nobody is… and you’re not sure which you’d prefer.
I was 13 when my family left South Africa. I departed the cozy womb of my small 8th grade class at the only Jewish high school in Pretoria, and entered the loud, frenetic, unfiltered school of new everything in Hod Hasharon, Israel. The faces I knew even better than my own, the voices I had heard every day since Kindergarten, the secrets and jump-rope games (24 Robbers Came Knocking at My Door!), netball practices and Liquifruit juice boxes, blue blazer with the school badge and sensible black shoes… all were replaced with unfamiliar, uncomfortable, daunting and overwhelming.
I stood in the doorway of my new class, in my ridiculous white shorts, my almost-grown-out perm caught up in a scrunchie (omg I know, but it was 1987) and tried to smile as every strange face turned toward me. Gulp. Then turned away. Double gulp. Would I ever feel familiar here? Would I ever learn all their names? Recognize these voices? Would anyone ever greet me, never mind tell me a secret? Who wears white shorts when she wants to blend in and be cool? We called the teachers Shmulik, Malka, Naomi… Mrs West, Mrs Burger and Mr Coetzee were unimaginably far away.
Within weeks, I had ditched the white shorts. Learnt how to play Five Stones and basketball. Fell in mini-love with a cute, shorter-than-me boy named Dani. And shared laughs, secrets, dance moves and sleepovers with my new friends. Lonely, scary and intimidating made way for happy and comfortable. Hebrew colored my dreams. Unfamiliar became home, and I never did miss wearing that blue school blazer.
Twenty three years and a drastic hairstyle change later, I was once again the intimidated, lonely new kid. This time with a baby in my arms, a clingy child wrapped around one shin, and a flailing, angry seven-year-old. Who inappropriately and very loudly declared to all those gathered on the blacktop in excited anticipation of the first day of school: “I’m not going to school with these freaks!” He didn’t declare it loudly, I correct myself. He yelled it. And by all those on the blacktop, I mean the entire student, teacher and parent population. He too was a new kid.
Heads turned. The baby cried. My little girl tightened her koala-grip on my leg, and I tried to dash after my indignant, scared boy who didn’t know what to do with these new feelings of bewildered and uncomfortable loneliness. I felt them too, and I wished for any length of badly-permed hair to hide behind, instead of the short spikes that were surely standing every which attention-grabbing way on top of my head.
New year. New school. New teacher. New friends. I hoped. For both of us.
It had been decades since I had been the new kid. Since I had felt out of my element. Lonely and alone. And there I was, wishing I were anyone, anywhere else, the 36-year-new kid, feeling 500 hundred shades of glaring invisible on the blacktop.
My newly minted first-grader was mad. He hadn’t wanted to leave his old school. The friends he had known, played with, shared meals, toys, germs with since he was two-years-old. That was my decision. And his dad’s. And as my heart shattered on the blacktop into so many sad and lonely pieces that first day of new school, when he floundered and raged against a decision that wasn’t his, I wondered if we had done the right thing. For him or for me.
“It’ll be okay. Here, give me the baby,” a kind, firm voice said in my ear. She had a baby and a clingy kid of her own to deal with, but she whisked mine away so that I could help my distressed son. And myself. Her blue eyes looked straight into mine, “First days are hard. It’ll be okay.” I passed the baby into her waiting arms. And I believed her.
Four years later, there is not a new kid my son doesn’t notice. Befriend. Invite over. He shows them the pass-through in the fence between our house and the neighbors’, and all the kids fill water balloons and throw them at each other. They leave flip flops, hair ties and other bits of themselves in their wake.
“It’ll be okay,” the blue-eyed-stranger-now-friend said, when she drew me out of my lonely, bewildered new-kid moment on the blacktop. It’s not okay. It’s wonderful. Because of her. And all the moms and dads and kids and teachers and grandparents and people like her. It’s a small-ish town, with a big, big heart. Where everyone is a neighbor, a friend, someone to help, to care about. And hopefully the new kids don’t feel new for very long. Especially if they do not wear white shorts!