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’.”

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Once Upon A Stairwell

by Pat Gallant
10th Grade

We have made an exception to our usual elementary and middle school time frames for this lovely high school tale. -Shan & Jen

I had made it through first period at my new school without incident.  But there was still a whole day ahead of me and I knew all too well that a new student is a likely target.

I slinked up the stairs, heading for my next class, staying as close to the wall and as invisible as possible, as I had done for so many years, at my former school.  Frankly speaking, I was not popular.  I was the youngest in my grade, the smallest, and perhaps not so much shy as intimidated by the popular girls in my old school. My hair stood out in a bunch of corkscrew curls. The same curls which adults ogled over, fellow classmates teased me about. I was painfully skinny but finally, at fifteen years old, beginning to “develop.”  But as my best friend pointed out, she and I were already pigeon-holed, having been classified for too many years in the unpopular group.

My mother said many times over the years that she regretted her decision to put me ahead one year. My birthday falls in the summer, so I could have been the oldest in the class behind, or the youngest in the class ahead. My mother opted for one year ahead, remembering her school days and figuring I would like one year less school better than one year more. I agreed with her on that and despite my reassurances that she meant well and did the right thing, she felt badly about it.

A “good” school day was one in which the unpopular group was largely ignored. A bad school day was one where we were picked on mercilessly.

During breaks, I hid in the ladies’ room rather than have to walk past the cliques of taunting girls. After lunch, when all the kids went to the rec room, I was back in the ladies’ room. It was too daunting a task to have to face all of them at once; worse if they taunted me in front of the boys.  It was just too embarrassing.

****

It was the first day of 10th grade. All my friends had changed schools for one reason or another. I was now a posse of one in a school I hated. The workload was nearly unbearable. The pressure to succeed ever-present. And the cliquey girls had teasing down to a science. Worse still, this was the year we were required to put a live frog “to sleep,” for dissection. No excuses. No doctors’ notes. No parents’ notes.  This was mandated in order to stay in this very prestigious New York City school.

So, this posse of one sat in the first class. The teacher was nasty. Really nasty. Sarcastic, tough, and ranting that next semester, frog dissection was a must and that no one could get out of it.

It seemed counter-intuitive to ask students to kill a frog.  I glanced over and watched as the frogs hopped gleefully in their tanks. I looked out the window at the sunny day, the smell of grass filtering through the open window. I knew I wasn’t going to kill one of the frogs. They deserved this beautiful day, too.

At the end of the day when I got home, I told my mother I wouldn’t go back to that school. All my friends had left. The teacher was mean. My arms were stiff and back aching from carrying the eight heavy textbooks that held the five-plus hours of homework that awaited me. She saw how distraught I was and began phoning schools the next day, to find a new one for me.

We opted for the school my best friend had changed to. But I wasn’t relieved when I got word that I was accepted. In fact, I was terrified. I hated school. Or at least I thought I did. Another place to be teased.

****

So, there I was, halfway up the stairwell of the new school.  A tall, handsome, upperclassman came lumbering down the stairs. He stopped a few steps above me.

“Hi,” he said.

I looked behind me. No one was there. In fact, we were the only two people on the stairwell. He couldn’t possibly be talking to me.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

I nodded, pushing myself further into the wall, waiting for the taunts to begin. He introduced himself and then added, “Would you like to go for coffee after school?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was almost afraid to say yes. Was this a set-up? Was he joking?

He continued, “We can meet at the lockers at three o’clock.”

A small voice responded, “Sure.” It was mine.

“See ya later,” he said, and he was off.

And in that moment, I had an epiphany. He had no idea I was unpopular. He had no idea I was shy or scared. In fact, he knew nothing about me. It was a defining moment. I moved away from the wall, straightened up, and walked up the stairs a new person.

I could be those popular girls. I knew how to do it. I’m a good study. I had watched from the bleachers for so long. At last, maybe it was my turn. But I wouldn’t be mean. Not to anyone. I promised myself that.

I couldn’t wait for lunch to call my mother and tell her why I would be late coming home, that I had a date with an upperclassman after school. It took her about one second to know she had made the right decision in allowing me to change schools.

The date wasn’t a setup after all. In fact, we had a great time. And many more after that. So, I began my performance as a “cool,” popular girl; a performance worthy of an Academy Award.  I bought new, more “grown-up” clothes, changed hair styles, and bought the very trendy yet delicate Papagallo shoes. I forced myself to walk with my head high, to speak up in — and out — of class, even if I was shaking inside, and even if I wasn’t taking a popular viewpoint.

Eventually, I found my own voice and I didn’t have to “act” the part anymore. Heck, I had become cool for real! And popular! A cheerleader. Secretary of the whole school. I had plenty of dates. But I never forgot to extend a hand to the “unpopular” kids and to stick up for them, even if that was the unpopular position to take — even if that meant risking losing friends. I stuck to my guns and to my surprise, was respected for it. Most important was the change I felt inside. I didn’t hang onto people’s opinions of me anymore. I did what I thought was right and stood by what I believed in. I began to like me.

Another big surprise was that I loved to study and loved school. It wasn’t school I had hated after all; it was the other school that I hated. I loved this school. It was a good fit. The B’s, C’s, and D’s of my old school were now all B’s and A’s, using the same text books. The work wasn’t easier; it was because I was happy and motivated. The pressure and workload was decidedly less but it, too, was a pretty hefty load. But I loved the teachers and environment as well, and that made all the difference.

****

In senior year, there was still one stone left unturned. Could I cut it in my old school or would I regress to my former self? Would I once again slink around the halls, afraid of my own shadow, scared to talk, no dates, intimidated by those girls? But I was a woman now, I reminded myself, albeit a young one. I had straightened my hair and it blew willingly in the wind. I dressed the part, talked the talk — but could I walk the walk? I had to find out.

My same best friend and I both got permission from our mothers to cut class and visit our old school.  We arrived during lunch hour; the hour that had intimidated us the most when we were students there.  The hour where everyone congregated in the rec room. Nonplussed on the outside, hearts in our throats on the inside, we sauntered into the rec room. We walked center stage and propped ourselves up on the ping-pong table, something I wouldn’t have done for a million dollars some three short years earlier.

And then we were noticed. There were whispers. We overheard, “Is that really them? Oh, my God, they’re beautiful. Can you believe it?”

We still got glares from some of the clique-girls but they were glares of jealousy because we were surrounded — by the guys and many of the popular girls. We were invited to classes. Asked out for dates. We even became life-long friends with some. They, too, had grown-up.

****

Now, some 40-plus years later, there is still the little girl inside with the corkscrew curls. And I like her.  She has her place. She keeps me centered. She is the holder of memories.  But there is also the woman, the wife, the writer, and the mother. And if I ever feel intimated by someone, I smile at the little girl and remind her of that day on the stairwell when she became a woman — and I walk with my head held high, speak out, and don’t allow anyone to intimidate me. But when I return home, I give a secret wink and a High-Five in the mirror — to both of us.



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.



French Lessons

by Dan Moreau
Age eight at the time

At age eight, my parents enrolled me in the French School. Unlike the American School, which cost more and was farther from our house, the French School embodied my mother’s ideals of sophistication, culture and civility. She herself had been raised by French Catholic nuns and instead of rebelling against them, as so many other girls did, she embraced them.

We had just moved from Miami, Florida to Bangkok, Thailand. In Miami, I had just finished the first grade, but because I was starting at the French School with no preexisting knowledge of French, the principal thought I should repeat the first grade. My parents didn’t object, nor did I.

In early September my parents dropped me off by the front gate to my new school and wished me luck. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to find my classroom. Our teacher’s name was Madame Unarat. She was petite and plump with short dark hair and owlish glasses. That first morning I sat quietly at my desk, pretending to understand everything that my new classmates and teacher said.

At noon, the bell rang for lunch and Madame Unarat let us out into the courtyard. All the other kids had brought packed lunches. Everyone except me. I think my parents had sent me off to school without lunch, assuming—and perhaps rightly so—that the expensive tuition they were paying would at least include meals. It didn’t.

As I sat by myself on a bench, biting my fingernails, my stomach growling, a woman who worked at the school approached me. She was wearing lipstick and perfume and the collar of her blouse was stylishly raised up. She asked me if I had eaten. I didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, this time in English. I shook my head in reply.

She took me to the school cafeteria. They called it a “cafeteria,” but it was more like a French bistro with a chalkboard out front that displayed the day’s specials. It was where the teachers and school staff gathered for lunch, coffee and cigarettes. She bought me a chicken drumstick and took me back to the courtyard where I devoured the drumstick down to the bone.

A boy from my class sat next to me on the bench. He was the biggest kid in our class and looked older than the rest of us with the lip shadow of a prepubescent mustache. He spoke some English and, unlike the other kids who as a rule ignored me, he was friendly to me. Too friendly. But where he was talkative and warm, I was aloof and tightlipped.

Though it was only my first day, and though I didn’t understand a word of French, I instinctively knew where this boy stood in the playground hierarchy and even though I had no friends I wanted nothing to do with him. Without knowing it, I had made a swift and vital decision. I would rather have no friends at all than be associated with this social pariah. In approaching me so early on, he might have befriended me before I caught on to what the other kids were saying about him. And in hindsight, it was the right decision. Slowly but surely, as my French improved, so did my rapport with my classmates. I made new friends; he didn’t. We never talked much after that.

Because of my age and because of the mistaken belief that children pick up languages like head lice, by proximity and by immersion, my parents thought I would come home one day, fully fluent in French. That wasn’t the case. I had to learn French like any adult would, through repetition, rote memorization and trial and error.

Every day after school I met with Madame Unarat for an hour or two. That was when my true instruction began. Her methods were simple yet effective. She would read from a primer, pausing after each word, which I repeated until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was painstaking, frustrating and laborious and sometimes she would raise her voice in anger when I couldn’t sound out a word correctly. But it worked. By the end of the year, I spoke enough French to get by on and was admitted to the second grade.

My second grade teacher didn’t have Madame Unarat’s patience and treated me as any other student. Monsieur Stricte was a dark, wiry, morose man. By then, I had quit having afternoon lessons with Madame Unarat. It was assumed that I was fluent. I wasn’t. I spoke a hybrid of playground argot and slang. Yet I went to great lengths to conceal my failings. I copied off of classmates, I cheated on reading comprehensions by looking up the answers in the back of the book and, most of all, I kept a low profile. To my parents and everyone else, I seemed to be doing just fine.

One day, in the middle of the semester, Monsieur Stricte asked me point blank if I spoke French. I had just handed in an assignment on which I had done better than everyone in the class. Like with every other assignment, I had cheated on this one too, but my mistake was to give myself too many correct answers.
Monsieur Stricte stared at me coldly. His eyes said it all. I knew what answer he was looking for. To say yes would be to perpetuate a charade he plainly saw through. It was also a lie. Yet the truth was more complicated. Yes, I spoke conversational French. No, my written French and reading skills were awful. After a few awkward seconds, I shook my head. The following day, I was demoted to the first grade where Madame Unarat welcomed me, literally, with open arms, wrapping me up in a tight bear hug in front of the entire class. I was never so happy to see her.



Shoes Can Buy Me Love

Brian Greene
Age 12 at the time

My family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia when I was 12 years old and in the sixth grade. My father was in the Navy, and we were transferred to Virginia from Charleston, South Carolina, where we had been living the previous three years. In South Carolina we lived on the naval base but in Virginia Beach we lived in town, amongst the civilians. I was to find that life for a pre-adolescent was much different at a regular neighborhood and at a public school than how things were on the base, and at the Navy school.

On the base in South Carolina, there really weren’t any established cliques amongst the kids who lived and went to school there. Of course you made friends with certain other kids and hung out with them more than others, but there were no exclusive groups everyone was either part of or refused admittance to. Maybe this because the society around a military base is so transitory, and so diverse; with the sailors getting transfers so often, families came and went on a daily basis, and the ones who came in arrived from all over the country, and sometimes different parts of the world. We were all too transient, and too different from one another, for there to be much of a social status pecking order in place amongst us kids.

It was much different in Virginia Beach. On joining the new school, I learned very quickly that my class was split into two distinct groups. There was a pack of about 10 kids, probably half boys and half girls, who were clearly the elite here. They made the best grades, the boys were the most athletic and the girls were the prettiest. They sat amongst themselves in the cafeteria and if you weren’t invited to sit at their part of the table, you wouldn’t dare go over there. All the rest of us kids were simply “the others,” the commoners who simply took up space and were the ones the elite crowd could look down upon.

I had no great desire to get in with the popular kids, but what did bother me was that, even within the group of “average” boys and girls, I didn’t seem to be making any friends, even after I’d been in the town, and at the school, for a few months. The other nondescript kids were generally friendly with one another, and many of them seemed nice enough. How come none of them were trying to befriend me, when I was one of them?

Finally, I decided I would try and find out why none of them were making friends with me. I asked a boy named Mark, who had done more than any of my other classmates to be nice to me. We were outside on the playground at recess, and Mark and I were kind of standing off by ourselves.

I said, “Do you know why Marvin or Stacy or none of the other kids ever talks to me? I saw Stacy at the park near my house the other day, and when I went up to say hi to her, she walked away. People are always doing that to me. I’m not talking about Greg and Melissa and those kind of kids, I mean the regular ones, like us.”

Mark looked like he was carefully considering how to answer my question. Then he came to a decision in his mind and he said to me, “I’ll tell you the truth. It’s your shoes.”

“My shoes?”

“Yeah, they’re Weo’s.”

“Weo’s?”

“Yeah. You know how at the A&P grocery store they have some things that are like a sale brand? They call those things Weo’s. So to us anything that’s cheap like that, we call it a Weo. You should get your parents to get you some Nikes or Pumas, or at least Converse.”

“And that’s really why kids won’t talk to me?”

“Yep. A lot of them think you’re a nice kid. They say if he would just get rid of those Weo’s, we would play with him.”

It seemed that even amongst the “regular” kids, there were certain status symbols. I felt both confused and ashamed to learn that I was being shunned by them because I wore cheap, non-name brand tennis shoes.

That night, before I went to bed, I told my mother about my conversation with Mark. I asked her if she could buy me some Converse, if we couldn’t afford Nikes or Pumas. I made a deal with my mom, that if I mowed some lawns and put together a little bit of cash, she would pay for half of a new pair of Converse if I could cover the other half. I remember having a kind of creepy feeling when I bought the shoes and wore them to school for the first time. It was like I was buying the chance to make friends. In South Carolina, you made friends with certain kids just because you liked them and they liked you. Here, I had to wear a certain kind of shoe before any of my peers would consider befriending me. It didn’t feel right.

But I forgot about all of that when, at recess that first day when I wore my new shoes, Stacy – the same girl who had snubbed me at the park in our neighborhood – came up and talked to me. I’d had a crush on her since the first day I was at that school, and now she was flirting with me. I asker her to “go” with me about three days after that, and she said “yes.” After we started going together she got her parents to buy her a pair of Converse that were the same color as mine.