My dog and I have several lunchtime walks and we see students sitting on park benches, perched on walls or goofing around near the soccer fields.
There is one girl who is always alone.
She is maybe fifteen years old and has a cobalt blue streak in her dark brown hair. The blue stands out because it frames her face. She is usually staring at her phone or the ground, so the blue acts as a downward arrow.
My heart hurts for her as I see her walk down our street alone. No kid – no matter how cool their hair – wants to be alone. Not during school hours at least. Today she was perched on a rock set by the walking track. Hunched over her phone, I recognised the blue streak of hair.
I recognised the posture, too. The deliberate scrunching down to feel smaller and less visible and the relief of being able to escape the gazes of others in the schoolyard however briefly.
Felix noticed something different – her lunch. “Sorry if he scared you,” I said, “He’s always interested in food.” I gave her my biggest and friendliest smile as he wagged his tail.
I dearly wanted to tell her that high school will just be a blip in her life with bodies, minds and opportunities moving so rapidly that some of her classmates will return after summer vacation looking almost unrecognisable. That the coolest or loudest kids will be forgotten and left behind when she gets to choose her own adventures after graduation. That a teacher or a subject will somehow ‘click’ within her and offer a path and a passion remembered forever. That she’d find a place she belonged and could feel comfortable in without the gnawing anxiety about the opinions of people she had no respect for.
I didn’t of course. My stupid smile was supposed to show that I understood her loneliness; her need to escape from school and the comfort that finding a temporary haven from the disinterested stares of her classmates can bring.
She did not smile back but returned to her phone, emanating ‘get the hell away from me’ vibes.
I should have remembered: a lonely kid does not want sympathy from an adult. It is only the acceptance of their peers that matters during the early teenage years. Interference or cheery platitudes from adults just make things worse. Time flies frighteningly fast for us but drags along incredibly slowly and lethally during the agonies of adolescence. Whether we want to reminisce or not, those years were genuinely painful for most of us, no matter how long ago.
In 1980 my father was a high-school teacher in a small Australian town. He accepted an Exchange Teacher place, swapping his job and home for twelve months to experience life, work and travel in another country. Aberdeen, Scotland. We had never even been on an aeroplane before!
A fortnight later, I stood with sun-bleached hair from swimming in the neighbour’s pool being stared at, introduced by the frazzled French teacher. My blazer too big, skirt too long and the desert boots looked ridiculous. For the first time ever, I felt out of place.
Not one of my classmates showed any interest. No one would be asking her what living in Australia was like.
At recess I trudged slowly out of maths, face still burning from answering “Eighty-Eight” and hearing them laugh at my stupid accent. I followed the crowd to the cloakroom and pretended to be waiting for the toilet. Little did I know that this was to be my main activity during recess for the next six months.
At lunchtime I would patiently line up to be given a plate of mealies, soggy chips and wrinkled peas before sidling up to a spare chair and mumble, ‘CanISitHerePleaseThanks’ and plonk down, trying to hide behind her fringe.
No one said, “No,” as I sat. I was beneath their interest; acknowledging me with an insult would have required effort. I was invisible. No, worse because there was no freedom escape, but to stay and be ignored.
They would finish and run out to play football or gossip, leaving me behind. After three weeks of sitting alone in the cloakroom I discovered the library.
This wondrously quiet and anonymous place was open to anybody at school. The relief was tremendous as I dawdled by the bookshelves. I loved reading, and it provided respite because sitting alone would not appear awkward.
The librarian knew. She always said ‘hello’ as I silently wandered in and sat down at the table farthest from the entrance, shoulders hunched. I never dared speak to her. I knew she felt sorry me, but to see pity close up would just be too much to bear and I must never, ever be seen crying at high school.
On the bus home, I sat by myself, supposedly entranced by the grey view of the outskirts of Aberdeen and Cove Bay. I’d call out ‘I’m home’ to my mother in the most cheerful voice I could manage, hang up my coat and head upstairs.
ABBA’s Super Trouper would be played as the tears flowed, staring through the window to the winding railway, dreaming I was back home again, with friends and certainty and comfort and not this awful, relentless feeling of pain and invisibility.
One day someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hi,” I replied, voice croaking.
“Are ye an Aussie, is that right?”
“Aye,” I muttered, having learned months ago to tone down my accent.
“Can ye swim?”
“Aye,” I replied, noticing her lovely brown eyes.
“I’m Pamela and captain of the Kincorth Swimming Club and we need more swimmers. Do ye want tae come?”
She saved me.
Pamela took the time to wander over to a lonely, broken little soul and speak to her.
All I can do for the girl with the blue streak in her hair is hope that she finds her Pamela. No kid stands or sits alone by choice.