Can I Sit with You?

My Longing to Belong

by Elisabeth Ellendorff
Kindergarten through seventh grade

“Tell me, are you looking forward to going to kindergarten?” The friendly lady, our neighbor, bent down to ask me. I was standing next to my mother, clutching her hand for safety.

I had heard that question so often now. Everybody asked me. After all, I was four years old, and I was sure that beginning kindergarten next fall was going to be the biggest adventure in my life. And like always, I looked at her and said, “Yes.”

I thought about kindergarten. It was all so mind-boggling thrilling. They had built a brand new kindergarten in our part of Zurich, and the kids of my age group were going to be the “first” ones in it. Like with all kids, the fact of something’s being NEW added to my excitement.

As spring merged into early summer in 1961, my anticipation rose from day to day. But I hadn’t reckoned on the world of adults.

My father, a German physicist, was busy expanding his career. His big international Swiss company decided it would be a good idea for him to go to New York. So my parents packed up our household, gathered their five children together, and before I could realize what was happening, we were in a different country, different culture, and immersed in a different language. So much for my plans to attend that lovely new kindergarten.

We moved to a small town on the Hudson, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. I was placed in a preschool attached to the local elementary school. Here, in this new country, my brothers and I could prove that even if we had no say in what adults did with us, we were much better than those adults at learning languages. I don’t honestly know how it happened. I learned English like magic — at least, I thought so.

But then there was that morning at preschool. We had been doing finger-painting. When everybody was finished, we sat at our tables, looking expectantly at our teacher.

Only something was wrong. The teacher had her eyes fixed on me. And she looked very angry. Apparently, my table hadn’t met her standards of cleanliness, but I had no way to know that.

“Go,” she said fiercly, “Get a sponge, and clean that away.”

I just stared at her, not comprehending. Sponge? Never heard of it.

Now the teacher, who was usually very pretty and very composed — I liked her — glared at me and grew very loud. I think she would have liked to slap me.

“A SPONGE!” she yelled. She must have thought I was being stubborn, maybe even rebellious.

I was bewildered. What had I done to make her so angry? I think I put my head on the table and began to cry.

“Please, Miss,” said one of the other girls as she raised her hand, “Please. I don’t think she understands. She’s from Germany. She doesn’t know what a sponge is.”

The teacher stared. Then she whipped around, grabbed the sponge from the sink and practically threw it at me. “THAT is a SPONGE! And now you clean that up, Madam!”

With my heart beating and my face red from humiliation, I did as she said.

Time flew, and soon preschool was a thing of the past. I now went to elementary school and spoke English as well as anyone. But, somehow, I was always “the kid from Germany.” I never belonged. And I would have loved that. Oh, I how I would have loved to belong!

My brothers didn’t “belong” either. We had classmates with Italian names, friends with French and Spanish names, but we were somehow condemned to stay strangers.

Then one morning, waiting for the school bus, one of my classmates was bored. She began looking for trouble She pointed at me.

“My Dad says, if Lizzy is German, then she’ s a nutsie,” she said.

“A nutsie?” the other kids giggled.

“Yeah, a nutsie, nutsie, nutsie.”

They took me in their middle and began dancing around me, sticking out their tongues and singing, “Nutsie, nutsie, nutsie!”

The bus stopped to pick us up and they broke off their singing. I was more confused than sad. A nutsie. A nutsy? I said the word over and over in my mind. What could they mean?

Curious, I asked my mother after school, “Mummy, what is a nutsie? The other kids said I was a nutsie.”

My mother frowned. Then she knelt down and looked into my face.

“Listen. Nazis were bad people who did very nasty things in Germany. That was during the war. That was before you were born. You can’t be a Nazi. I was never a Nazi, nor was your father. Your grandparents were very pious Christians. They got into very dangerous situations for not belonging to the Nazis.”

For not belonging! For someone like me, who fiercely wanted to “belong,” this was a new aspect. My parents and my grandparents obviously were proud for “not having belonged” in those days.

Seven years passed, and my parents packed up again and moved back to Germany, where my father had been offered a professorship at a university. My parents were glad to go. My brothers were almost finished with school now. It was the time of the Vietnam War. Although we were officially “just residents,” they, like any American boys, could be drafted.

Once again, we children were not asked. The adults decided for us. With heavy hearts we said good bye to our teachers, friends, and neighbors. I never really had succeeded in belonging, I never was invited to the really cool parties and social events, but I did have one or two dear friends I knew I would miss.
But, no matter, we were going back home now. We were Germans, and for the first time in my life, I would be living in “my” country. That would make up for a lot of sadness. Now I would belong.

So I thought.

I adapted to the so very different German school system. I gained new friends. I got used to speaking German, rather than English.

Then one day, one of my new girlfriends said to me, “Do you know what everyone calls you? How the kids who don’t know your name refer to you?”

I shook my head. “No. Tell me.”

“They call you ‘The American Girl’.”


Share a Cookie

by Cheryl Caruolo
Seven Years Old at the Time

Because my parents never made much of an effort to create opportunities for me to be with other children, when I entered school I had no idea how to share or play games. Mom was overprotective and never allowed me to participate in after school games or things like girl scouts. She was afraid of everything. And I followed suit.

In 1966, my uncle took us to visit the World’s Fair in New York City –- it was filled with electric cars of the future, street performers from Europe and Latin America, and a roller coaster that careened through the middle of a building. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go inside any of the attractions or on any of the rides. My uncle finally convinced her to go on the skyline so we could see the whole fair from above, but my Mom was so scared I’d fall out she held a tight grip on the collar of my coat. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the edge of the car and I never saw the view of endless possibilities from the sky.

Once my class went on a field trip and I was left behind because my mother didn’t give me permission to go. Anything unfamiliar terrified me and when my teacher told me to go to the classroom next door, I panicked and started to cry. My classmates laughed. I cried more. I told my teacher that I wanted to stay in our classroom.

“You can’t stay here alone.”

“I’m not alone. The angels are here with me.”

They laughed harder.

My teacher warned the class, lined up at the door, to stop and then they left. Thinking I could stay right in my familiar seat until the end of the day, I remember feeling relieved. But a few minutes later another teacher came into the room to get me.

“Come along now to my classroom.”

At seven years old my choices were limited and so with red eyes and runny nose I followed her into her room.

As soon as I arrived at the school yard the next day the snickers of my classmates surprised me like a splash of cold water.

“Cry baby.”

“No one has imaginary friends anymore.”

I dreaded recess. Usually no one would play with me, so I sat in the corner of the school yard rolling stones under the shadow of an oak tree. The tree’s umbrella felt safe. Sometimes I’d look through the little steel windows of the fence and wish I was in the Mustang Convertible or Corvette Stingray speeding down the main road. I’d watch the girls on the asphalt playing hopscotch, a game I was good at, but never had the nerve to join them.

Whenever the class was asked to choose team members, I always ended up assigned to a team as a leftover. If I was lucky enough to be one of the first ones out the door at recess, I’d run to the end swing and stay on it for the entire time. I loved gliding back and forth through the air, looking up at the sky. Pretending to fly. The higher, the freer.

I remember telling my mother that I hated school, but I never explained why. I didn’t want to admit that none of the children liked me. I understand a parent wanting to protect her young, but Mom’s fears stunted me from developing self-confidence -– I struggle with it still today.

In second grade I tried to start anew. I stopped talking about imaginary friends and pretended I liked all the things my classmates liked. But things fell apart fast.

Unable to participate in after school activities and forbidden to invite friends home my life grew more isolated. I pulled deeper into myself like a turtle retreating into its shell. The unresolved feelings that hung in the air resulted in bouts of anger, depression and confusion. Once I picked a fight with a girl simply because I knew I could beat her up. My young life was out of control and I desperately wanted control over something. I derived great satisfaction from that poor girl’s agony.

My life drudged on until I was finally able to convince my parents to let me get a dog — a six-month old Wiemaraner. Because she was German and I was nine, I named her Heidi. I adored that dog and suddenly I had a companion.

Heidi woke me every morning for school and was waiting every afternoon when I returned. Sitting on the porch together, I’d scratch her ears as she rested her head on my lap. Her gray hair felt like short slips of satin sliding through my fingers.

I felt unconditional love and acceptance from Heidi. We were connected in that unspoken spiritual way humans and animals seem to share. Whenever I was crying she’d place her paw on my hand and nuzzle her head along side me. If anyone was visiting our house and she was unsure of them, she would sit in between us until I’d assure her that it was okay.

Because of Heidi, I started to believe the tiniest bit in myself. And I gradually felt more comfortable talking to kids at school — finding things in common, sharing snacks, even joining hopscotch games sometimes.

Then one day a new girl came to class. My classmates pointed at her and called her weird. I said nothing.

But at recess one brilliant blue autumn day, I noticed her swaying on my safe haven swing and, for some unexplainable reason, I walked up to her and offered one of my beloved Oreo cookies.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin-Eater
May 5, 2008, 6:19 pm
Filed under: bully, peer pressure | Tags: , , , , ,

by Sabina Sood
Age 11 at the time

“I dare you to cheat on your math test.” The gentle breeze blows her words away before they reach my ears.

“What?” If my words aren’t enough to portray my puzzlement, my scrunched nose, half-opened mouth, and furrowed eyebrows are. Did she say, “cheat”? How will cheating on my math test make me worthy enough to be accepted into her circle of friends?

“I double dog dare you to write down all the test problems and give them to me,” she taunts. Who does Kristina think she is (besides the leader of the most popular group in fifth grade)? As my flame of hope to join her group is snuffed, I turn around to leave.

“I triple dog dare you. You can’t turn that down!”

My shoes squeak on the dewdrop grass as I pivot to face her. A smile tiptoes across her face as the other girls in her clique laugh.

She knows I know about the unwritten rules that bind every elementary school kid to the social ladder. Every kid keeps this rulebook tucked away in a corner of his mind until the day she outgrows it and passes it on to someone else. One of my friends passed this knowledge on to me when she graduated from elementary school, and during times like these, I wish she hadn’t. This rulebook is the Bible of elementary school and not abiding by it makes losing one’s social life inevitable.

As I ponder her statement, I flip through the pages of the rulebook in my head. Here it is. Page 37, Rule # 182: “If a kid is dared to perform a task, she has the choice to accept or refuse it. If a kid is triple-dog-dared to do something, she must complete the dare or risk public humiliation.”

If I refuse the dare, then word of my sin will spread like wildfire throughout the school, and no one will ever speak to me again. If I accept the dare and cheat on my math test, I will jeopardize my elementary school career … but that will only happen if I’m caught.

The next day, I enter my math classroom, my heart pounding and my mind searching — searching for the courage and reassurance that escapes with every breath. I accepted the dare and there is no turning back. My face tingles as shivers dart up and down my spine. Sweat trickles down my arm as I focus on one sustaining thought: I accepted the dare and there is no turning back.

Mr. Walshe reads the directions of the math test. Time creeps by. Tick…tock … tick…tock. After what seems like an hour, he finishes his speech with, “You have forty minutes to complete the test. You may begin.”

We turn the page. One student taps his pencil on the desk in a rhythmic pattern. Another accompanies him as she hits the desk frantically with her shoe. Tap … tap … bang … tap … bang. As the other students scribble on their scratch paper and fill in the bubbles on their answer sheets, I grab my pen, turn my left hand over, and jot down the first problem on my palm. “If 3x+5=…” The sweat from my hand smears the ink. “If 3x+5=…” My hand quivers, causing even the prettiest handwriting to be illegible.

I cross out my mistake and find a clean part of my palm to begin again. “If 3x+5=20, solve for x.” I glance up to see if anyone notices. Mr. Walshe types on his computer. The other students rustle their test papers and answer sheets. I look at the next problem, but I hear something as I bring the pen to my hand.

“Sabina, what are you doing?” Although he whispers, Mr. Walshe’s deep voice penetrates the classroom. His tone drowns the paper rustling and shatters the pencil-tapping and shoe-banging harmony. As he stands by my desk, his shadow devours me. My heart sprints to catch up with my embarrassment. The blood from the pit of my stomach rushes to my head as my face boils. He grabs my test and tears it in half. My classmates murmur. I can’t swallow and can barely inhale enough oxygen to stay conscious.

“Let’s go talk in the hallway.” I can’t move. My feet are glued to the ground. Guilt desiccates every drop of saliva in my mouth. It chains me to my desk. I struggle and finally break free from the shackles. The water that disappeared from my mouth now crowds my eyes and streams down my face. As Mr. Walshe crosses the classroom, I try to run, but my feet are anchors, maliciously enjoying every student’s glance that pierces my ego and follows me out of the classroom like a shadow.

As soon as the door closes, I ramble, trying to say anything that will save me from the punishment. “ThereisKristinaandtherulebookandshetripledogdaredmeIcouldntsayno.” I hate him. How can he embarrass me like that? It isn’t my fault that I cheated on the math test. It’s Kristina’s fault for daring me. It’s the rulebook inventor’s fault for writing Rule # 182. It’s God’s fault for giving me dreadful cheating skills. Why should Mr. Walshe punish me?

“This is your first and final warning, Sabina. I’ll give you a second chance to take the test, but I will have to call your parents,” Mr. Walshe explains. He returns to the classroom, leaving me alone in the hallway to think about what I have done.

The following day, I walk onto the playground and sit on the tanbark. Kristina and her group spot me near the swings.

“I heard Mr. Walshe caught you cheating,” one of her friends snickers.

“How embarrassing,” says another.

“Even though you failed miserably, having the guts to cheat makes you worthy enough to join my group. You can sit with us during lunch tomorrow,” Kristina scoffs.

I turn around and walk away as her offer hovers in the air, waiting for the wind to blow it away.