Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Unexpected Haven

This post is something I wrote as a guest blogger for my friend Lara's blog several years ago, and I thought I'd resurrect it here, as most of my readers haven't seen it. 

Rereading it was a great reminder that I want to be the kind of person for someone else that Mrs. Peterson was for me. (It also reminded me that you couldn't pay me to return to middle school.)

Originally posted at Overstuffed September 2011 

Entering junior high (or in my case, it was called “middle school”) is always a nasty experience, but I’d venture that mine was a bit rockier than most. My family had just returned from a three-year stint in Finland. Although I wouldn't give up my time in Finland for anything, those years were hard in their own way, especially the first one, where it was cool to beat up the American girl, I had to make friends, and (!) learn the language.

But there was one big plus: I spent all three years with the same teacher and with the same classmates, in the same classroom. I had no idea what a good thing that was until I lost it.

Back in the States, Mom took me to get registered for school. Now I’d have seven new classes with seven new teachers and likely few students I knew at all—a far cry from my last three years.

On our tour through the school, we happened past the library, and my mother recognized the assistant librarian, Mrs. Peterson. They chatted a bit, and then Mrs. Peterson said they still needed another TA. Was my schedule full, or would I like to be a library TA for one of my electives?

I thought that sure, it might be fun, and signed up. I didn’t give it a second thought, beyond thinking it would be an easy A.

School started, and every single day, I ached hour after hour. Even though the halls were packed, I’d never felt so alone. The school was fed by several elementary schools, but I recognized students everywhere I looked.

Only they didn’t recognize me. For all they knew, the person I’d been three years ago had vanished off the planet. But I knew so many them.

That girl right there? She’s Keisha and she plays violin. Once, we had some stupid fight. I didn’t remember what it was about, but I always felt bad about it.

The guy behind me in French was Kyle. In fourth grade he sat by me and was really smart. He used to bring Boy’s Life to school.

That kid over there? Chad. He had a crush on me one year and baked me a lopsided heart cake for Valentine’s. He even tried to kiss me, and that was the one time I was grateful for a big brother who beat up on me, because I shocked the guys by fighting for my “honor” and got away.

It went on and on. In science it was Emily, whom I recognized from kindergarten.

Sarah from third grade showed up in another class.

There was Mark from second grade, who tried switching places with his twin Jeff on April Fool’s Day. And the boy who ate paste and had his hair pulled in first grade by the teacher who was later fired for child abuse.

I saw Jeannie and Stacie and Kelly and Loralee and . . . it went on and on. And oh, my heart just broke. None of them saw me. They looked right through me, because I didn’t exist to them as someone they already knew.

They didn’t have the slightest clue who I was, and I couldn’t very well just grab them by the sleeve and say, “Hey, remember me from three (or more) years ago? Remember how we played at recess together in Mrs. Wallace’s class? Or, “Remember how I came to your house when we were in Mrs. Mixa’s class?” It’s not like they’d remember, even if I had the guts to say something—which I didn’t.

I’d just spent three years with the same group of students. When I made friends with the Finnish girls, I never had to step out of that comfort zone and do it again, let alone in so many classes and in a new culture (US culture felt foreign), and a new language (English did feel new again). Somehow, my mouth was paralyzed shut. I couldn’t make friends. I couldn’t speak.

But each day when my library TA hour arrived, I walked in, and the burden fell from my shoulders like a physical weight dropping to the ground. There were no students to interact with beyond those checking out a book. There was no one to judge me, no one for me to try to get along with, or to make friends with or to impress. Just shelves and shelves of my best friends: books.

Plus Mrs. Peterson. She became a dear friend that year.

My library jobs were easy. Checking out books to students wasn’t too scary. Checking in books even less so, as it required no social interaction. Shelving was quiet and non-threatening. I could do that with nothing but me and silence and my thoughts. If there was nothing urgent needing to be done, I sat at the front desk and read. Sometimes I brought along some knitting.

But quite often I found myself in the back room talking to Mrs. Peterson. She made me feel at ease; my paralyzed mouth could open around her and speak. I could be myself. She never once treated me like a dumb little kid. I was always an equal in her eyes. My opinion mattered. I was there. I was present. I was never invisible to her. Her face lit up when she saw me, and she waved good-bye each time my hour was up.

She was the bright spot in my days, the one thing that kept me going during that miserable year. I had someone and something to look forward to. Someone to talk to, one place where I could drop my worries at the door and be and matter.

By the second semester, thanks to Mrs. Peterson’s genuine friendship, I had the confidence to open my mouth just enough to make two friends, one of which—miracle of miracles—is still close to me today.

I doubt Mrs. Peterson has any idea of the enormous impact she had on me, even though I kept visiting her off and on over the years, even after I got into college.

That school building is no longer a middle school. It’s been remodeled to the point that it hardly resembles the old building. And I have no idea where Mrs. Peterson is now. But if I could find her again, I’d give her a big hug (and likely some chocolate), then let her know what a balm she was during a difficult transition for one girl in desperate need of a soft place to fall during a difficult year of adolescence.

And then I wonder if I’ve ever overlooked the chance to be someone else’s balm by doing something as simple seeing them and talking to them in a genuine and real way. Because when I boil down what Mrs. Peterson did for me, that’s what it was. She cared. She listened. She talked to me. She saw me.

I can do that, can’t I?

Have I? It’s something I should strive for, because I know firsthand what a powerful effect it can have on a person’s day—and on their lives.


Susan Anderson said...

I think my sister (an English teacher) is that for her students. Even the ones she had years ago still come back to talk to her at lunch and after school.

It's good to make a difference.


Anonymous said...

Love this whole post. Every word.

Emily Gray Clawson said...

Those amazing, amazing mentors in our lives. Love it!

Diane O'Key said...

Still hear from former students and several aspiring authors, many of whom are now friends--and give back as much if not more than I think I gave to them. It's a gratifying...and very humbling...feeling.
Great post and wonderful reminder to help everyone we can. Think that's our purpose here :-)


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