It sucks being the new kid – even when you’re not a kid anymore.
At my old school, I could walk into the staff room anytime of day and no matter who was in there, I knew them, I liked them, and I felt comfortable talking to them.
My classroom was set up just the way I liked it.
I knew where all of the office supplies were stored and were the good things were hidden.
The school secretary was my BFF.
I knew when to approach the principal for something and when to turn tail and try again another day.
After 5 years, I belonged.
Until I didn’t anymore. And I had to get a new job.
After spending almost 10 years in the elementary school system, I switched gears and took a new position as a resource teacher at a different school – a middle school – grades 6-9.
I knew that I would know most of the kids because my new school is the feeder school for my old school. They are literally within walking distance of each other. But it was new and it was different and it wasn’t my old school.
My first day, I was lost. I didn’t know where anything was and I didn’t know who to ask. I recognized my fellow newbies by their vacant zombie stares and the way they reached out and grabbed at people, begging desperately, “Help me! I can’t find the photocopier!”
By lunchtime, I was questioning my decision to return to the teaching world altogether.
I was just about to reserve a table for one for my full-fledged pity party, when I walked into the cafeteria.
It was the first lunch for the new group of grade 6 students and they were all trying to figure out where to sit in their new cafeteria.
Last year, in elementary school, they all had assigned seating. You may not have liked the kid who ate beside you, but at least you had a place to sit.
Now, it was a free-for-all.
Some rushed to find a spot next to their friends, while others just stood there, scanning the room.
I watched for a few minutes. I said hi to a few kids I had taught in previous years and then I made a beeline for a little girl I saw sitting alone. Since I didn’t recognize her from my old school, I was pretty sure she had just moved to our area.
“Hi there,” I said, sitting down across from her. “My name’s Mrs. Hollis. What’s your name?”
She barely raised her head. “Sarah.”
“Hi Sarah. Are you new here, Sarah?”
“Where did you move from?” I asked, trying to gently get her to open up.
Turns out “Sarah” had just moved to our area from California. She didn’t know anyone and when the lunch bell rang, she had no idea where she was going to go or who she was going to sit with. So she chose to sit as far away as possible from everyone. She looked like she wanted to crawl inside her own skin and disappear.
I talked to her for a little bit and then introduced her to a few students I knew at her table. I tried to start a conversation between them before moving on.
Next I found a foreign exchange student standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria. She was clutching her lunch bag to her chest in the same way my grandmother used to hold her purse at the mall – as if she was trying to protect it from potential muggers.
This little girl’s English was poor and her voice was barely a whisper but I managed to figure out that she had had trouble opening her locker which made her late for lunch. She didn’t know where she was supposed to go and no one was jumping up inviting her to join them. I quickly paired her up with a few kids I had taught a few years back that I knew would be nice to her and kept moving.
Now, I realize these kids are not in Kansas anymore. They are travelling the mean streets of middle school now. But this shouldn’t have happened.
New kids need support systems in place the first day of school. They need to know that when they go to lunch on that first day, they won’t have to stand there, scanning the crowded tables, desperately trying to figure out whether it’s better to approach an already formed group and risk rejection or eat alone.
It’s difficult as an adult to feel out-of-place in an unfamiliar situation or with an unfamiliar group but it is gut wrenching for a child.
The most important thing for all of us as human beings is to feel as if we belong.
If you don’t feel that you belong in the place where you spend the majority of your time, chances are you will be stressed, anxious and unhappy. And when you are stressed, anxious and unhappy bad things happen. Eating disorders, depression, anger, and a whole host of other things that children shouldn’t have to go through.
Schools need to do a better job of helping everyone feel as if they belong.
New kids transferring into a school should be assigned a buddy, someone who is confident and familiar with the school. Someone who will show them which bathroom is closest to the class and which water fountain only spits out warm water. They need someone to sit next to during lunch that they know won’t make fun of them.
Today was Pink Day. It’s the day when students and staff wear pink to show that they are against bullying. This is a great initiative. But do you know what protects kids most from becoming victims of bullying? Having friends. Even one good friend lowers your risk. Bullies target kids who are alone because they are easy marks. If you have a friend, even one, you are safer, happier, and more successful.
So when you see a child who is always, repeatedly, unhappily, alone, say something, do something, help.
It could make all the difference in the world.