Had a bit of an awkward moment last week on campus that I’m not sure how to describe without sounding like I’m bragging, except to add the caveat: this is not to brag.
Spent an entire day on campus grading final papers with fellow teachers. As much as I love building relationships with my students, for some reason I struggle making friends with my peers. I think they’re nice and incredibly smart…but there always feels like a missing link. It could be the age / family difference — most of them are at least 5-6 years older than me and have children or partners. Five to six years doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can mean a whole generational difference in thinking and feeling. So maybe? There’s only so many times I can comment on how cute their children are based on the pictures on their desk before I sound like a creep.
In any case, I had finally found a foothold with the “in crowd” and been invited to grade papers with the group. Let me be clear: the hierarchies built up in middle school, formalized in high school, and renamed in college never really leave you. They’re the same: the hip crowd, the cool kids, the jocks, the dorks, the nerds, the goths, etc. etc. Even as a grown, working professional, it’s the same. Now, the whole “It gets better” campaign, meant to encourage struggling young people that the cycles created in school would one day be broken is TRUE; it does indeed get better when you’re free from the constraints of schoolyard peers. But it’s still THERE; the hierarchy remains, but how you choose to engage with it is completely different. I was a total nerd in school, and I’m still a nerd; but that title no longer has to weigh on me or affect my decisions or friendships. There’s still an “in crowd”, even amongst groups of teachers. But now instead of writing in my diary and holing up in my room when I don’t get invited to an in-crowd party like I did in high school, I can go home to my friends and boyfriend and watch Doctor Who!
BUT I DIGRESS.
So I was invited to grade papers with a group of cool teachers. I had awkwardly attempted to make friends with them before and they had awkwardly tried to reciprocate but it was awkward all around. Now I had finally found some magic word to unlock the gates to their inner sanctum or they had needed an extra person for carpooling, but I was IN. We planned to be on campus for about 5 hours, nose to the grind, grading those final assignments.
Our time grading was interspersed with chatting. We talked about the crazy things some students had written (kids say the darndest things — even on a final) and our shared classroom experiences. We talked about our families and our summer plans. It was nice. At noon, lunch was suggested.
I’ve always had a weird….tic about lunchtime. My family moved a lot while I was growing up and I ended up being the “new kid in school” 13 times. And the hardest part about being the new kid at every school was where to sit during lunch. Making friends, getting into the groove of things, adjusting to classes; I understood that that would all come with time. But those first days, first weeks, of not knowing where you belong as the new kid during lunch — who to sit with? Who to talk to? Where to go? — were always the most painful. There were days I skipped lunch and walked around football fields by myself just to avoid the trauma of trying to figure out which table to sit at in the cafeteria.
So when this group of new acquaintances suggested lunch, I knew it would be that awkwardness all over again and I shuddered inwardly. But I put on an excited smile and left with them. I walked on the outskirts of the group. As we neared the lunching place, the conversation turned to building relationships with students. My fellow teachers complained that students never warmed up to them. That their evals reflected poorly or that students were closed off or refused to engage. I felt bad for them and nodded sympathetically. They asked me if I had “problem students” this semester and I said something along the lines of, “yeah, there are always a few. Never really open up.”
At that precise moment, a group of my students ran up to me and hugged me.
Okay that last sentence may sound sweet or silly or even made up, but it wasn’t any of those things: in that moment, it was mortifying. On a regular day, sure, I would have loved it. I would have put up a fuss and grumbled about them being too familiar with me and tried not to look touched. I would have insisted that they call me by my proper title and that they go back to studying. I would have been a good mix of pissed and pleased.
The other teachers were just plain pissed. Their icy stares blew over me like cold winds beating at the walls of Winterfell and the enthusiastic embraces of my students were not enough to warm me. I shuddered. My students pulled away and chattered and laughed. They called me by my first name (which I do hate but which always happens by the end of the semester) as though we were old friends. The in crowd just stared. I was scared.
It would be easy to say, “Screw the in-crowd! You have the love of your students, unprofessional as it may be! Who needs peer relationships?” But the reality is, there’s a piece inside of all of us that wants to be accepted by the in-crowd. I think it’s in part biological; as mammals, we are generally safer in numbers. We develop a pack mentality; stick together as a group to be safe from predators. To be different was to be excluded from this pack, leaving you more susceptible to becoming prey. So maybe it’s hard-wired into me that as the group of teachers left me to my students with cries of, “we’re going to go on ahead to lunch! See you later!”, all the while glaring at me for what they assumed was betrayal, I felt profoundly alone. Eventually my students left, off to their own interesting and youthful lives; and I rejoined my peers in grading, feeling suddenly left out of their complaining and chatter.
Certainly I want to pass on the advice that life is not about winning the popularity contest; that it’s more important to make a difference or be yourself. But if we’re truthful, we’re all creatures of habit; we all want to be accepted. Now I’m not condoning my peers’ behavior and I’m not complaining about being friendly with my students.
I know that gaining the love of my students is a victory — but sitting in that group and still feeling alone felt more like a loss, in that moment.
(**Ned Stark, I feel you.**)
(Who knew the job description for Hand of the King was, “BE LONELY AND HATED”.)