It had rained most of the day.
At dinnertime, I saw a break in the clouds and thought we’d make a run for the park after we ate.
Hastily, I put the dishes in the sink and we ran for the door. Who knew how long the good weather would last? There’d be time for washing dishes later.
Julia and Sarah strapped on helmets and hopped on their scooters. Sammy climbed into his wagon.
We stopped to pick up a pal along the way and we were off to the park.
The girls love the monkey bars and headed straight for them. Sam climbed on the slide, and delighted in a game of peek-a-boo from inside a tunnel.
About five minutes later, a little boy bounded up from a nearby yard.
He was full of energy, and clearly was excited to see some other kids.
“Can I play with you?” he asked.
Julia looked over at me with a “Do we have to?” expression.
I answered for them.
“Of course you can,” I said.
For the next 15 minutes, he tried.
The girls were working on some intricate gymnastics-like bar moves. He swung down into the center of them, shouting, “Look at me!”
They came up with a routine of sorts, and he busted through it, asking, “Can you do this?”
Each time, the girls huffed. They tried to be pleasant enough, but there were gaping holes in the facade.
Julia came over to where I stood by Sam and whispered urgently: “Mom! He’s ruining everything. Do we HAVE to play with him?”
I reminded her how it feels to be the kid without a friend.
“Be kind,” I told her. “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”
She sulked for a second, but went back to the group with a smile on her face, ready to try anew.
Soon after, it was evident things weren’t getting better. And it was time to head home and get ready for bed, anyway.
We said goodnight to the boy, who didn’t seem fazed by the girls’ tepid attempt to include him.
“I live over there if you ever want to play,” he shouted.
The whole way home I wondered about that boy, remembering how it felt to be the one left out.
It was September 1985, and I had a case of the first-day-of-school jitters like never before.
My parents had sold our yellow-sided ranch house in small-town upstate New York to move to the “big city” (population, 30,000) a few miles away.
Not only was I about to start middle school, where I’d have to figure out how to change classes and teachers several times a day, but I also had to do it in a place where I didn’t know another single kid, and at the time in my life when I was at my most awkward.
Making matters worse, we weren’t in our new house yet. The sellers wouldn’t give up the keys in time to make for a clean transition. And the people who bought our old house were in a hurry to move. So we packed just the essentials to tide us over at an extended-stay hotel until we could get into our new two-story in the city.
The timing was terrible.
It was decidedly uncool to be living out of a suitcase for a month. And it was also uncool to ride up to school in a hooptie that perpetually sounded like it needed a new muffler, or at least a tune up.
But that’s what we had.
I’d be lying if I said that first day was a breeze.
Within the first five minutes of homeroom, I’d been sized up. The cool kids put me in a corner. The smart kids hadn’t yet decided if I was one of them. And the rest of the kids just shrugged me off as uninteresting.
I was just like that boy on the playground doing all I could to fit in.
The truth is, at some point in our lives, we all play the role of the new kid in school, or the playground or the new hire at the office, or the new mother in playgroup.
And for each time it happens, it doesn’t feel any better.
The only thing that helps is when someone reaches out and tries to be kind. When just one person is friendly and welcoming and remembers what it’s like.
And so, with school starting for so many of our kids, take a minute to tell yours about a time when you were that boy on the playground or the new kid in school. Remind them how isolating it feels to be sized up as unworthy within minutes of starting out. And challenge your children to be kind. To be the person who makes it better.
Even better still, lead by example.