The playground thrummed with the sounds of shouting and laughter. It was a warm, sunny day, and when the lunch bell rang we rocketed out of the double doors towards freedom and fresh air. I looked around at the swings, the basketball court, savoring my new surroundings. It had only been a month since I’d been enrolled in ORION, our school district’s enrichment program, and already I adored it. It was a place where everyone was like me! No one would make fun of me for having skipped a grade; no one would shun me for being lumped with the “nerdy” kids. We were all in the same boat; we all understood. I noticed a group of girls on the jungle gym and confidently, I joined in their climbing.
“Excuse me, what are you doing?” a voice demanded. I looked up directly into the irritated gaze of my classmate, Jean.
“Playing,” I replied pleasantly.
Jean sat on a wooden platform and folded her arms across her chest. “We don’t want you here.”
I looked around. We shared the recess period with other classes in the school…yes, that had to be it. There were unfamiliar kids near us; she must have mistaken me for one of them. When I laughed and kept on climbing, it was obvious Jean wasn’t amused. She leaned down from her wooden perch and put her face inches from mine.
“We don’t want you here,” she repeated. “Nobody likes you.”
I gulped. There was no mistaking her this time, and I was stunned by the shock. The cacophony around us had hushed, and I realized some of the kids were quietly watching us, snickering. The same kids with whom I felt safe, with whom I could relate. Why wasn’t anyone telling her to stop? Why was no one coming to my aid? I sensed the pressure of dozens of eyes eagerly awaiting my answer, and my face flushed.
“But…but I just wanted to be like you,” I stammered. Someone stifled a giggle. Jean smirked, her face grew hard, and then she spoke the words that changed my life.
“Stop trying – you will never be one of us.”
As she and the others went back to playing, I slid down from the jungle gym and waited dumbly by the fence for recess to end. Mercifully, the bell rang only minutes later, and my mind raced as I walked back to the classroom. Back in my regular school I was picked on and teased. I was left out of games and chosen last in gym. Fitting in just wasn’t something that came easily to me, and I’d blamed it on being younger, being different. But here, where everyone was different, I was still singled out. Jean said I would never be like them – could she be right? Was I truly an outcast, if you will, amongst outcasts?
Slowly, in the days that followed, something shifted in my thinking. There was no guaranteed spot for any of us. I might find solace with like-minded individuals, but the only person I would ever completely fit in with was myself. Each one of us is truly special and unique; why should I use all my energy striving to imitate someone who, in the end, wasn’t like me at all?
From that day forward, no matter what befell me, no matter what continued to shape my world, I was awakened. I eventually made friends and found places and people with which I “belonged”, but through it all I only defined myself as one thing: me. This continues to serve me well as I walk my path through life. Not bad for an outcast amongst outcasts. I wonder what Jean would say.
© Jennifer Ann Redmond