At last Sunday's "Story for All Ages" portion of our church service, the speaking minister began by asking our congregation's youth if there were kids at school that most would consider "cool." Beyond that, were there kids that were mean? How about uncool? Shy? Then she asked the kids what characteristics the typical "cool kids" had in common. In the end, it all boiled down to the fact that some kids are seen as attractive and cool and "worth knowing" and others were not.
Then she proceeded to tell a story that would prove a point - beauty, indeed, comes from within. Even those around us without the ability to see with their eyes can recognize the most beautiful around us by their generous spirits and their depth of character.
After the story, the minister presented the children in our congregation with a challenge. She would be back, preaching with us again in a couple weeks, and when she returned she wanted to hear what happened when our kids looked around them at school - looked at those on the periphery - and made an effort to get to know someone new. Someone who was not necessarily considered to be in the "cool" spotlight, but someone who deserved and desired a friend nonetheless. Find the beauty and what's "worth knowing" in someone who's normally hiding, or just plain not usually noticed.
Of course, it was my kid who shot her hand up, asking for a clarification on what "periphery" meant. So glad she was not only paying attention, but both interested and brave enough to ask what surely others among her may have needed to understand better themselves.
As for Hubby and I, we were chuckling to ourselves. Seeing that, in her own little way, Sweetie herself is one of the ones on the periphery. Always most content to play on her own (or at least with the younger kids - and probably the boys - who are as deeply submerged in imaginary story-telling play as Sweetie likes to be). Sure, whereas on the one hand it seems to us that nearly everyone knows and is friendly with Sweetie, on the other hand she doesn't really have - has never really had - any true friends. And the one who has perhaps come the closest is, himself, a "periphery" kid, in my estimation. Another who likes what he likes and sees no interest in doing other than what he enjoys. Luckily for him and Sweetie, their interests are very similar and they enjoy spending the time they have together - together. But still - do they seek each other out when being together isn't a "given" during after school care or whatnot? No. They each like their separateness just as much.
But back to Sweetie. She is self-confident, yes. Popular, sure. But let's just call her - as far as we can tell and from what we've heard from teachers - a "respected loner."
A kid on the periphery.
You'd think, therefore, that it wouldn't take her all that much effort to find another like herself and, as our minister challenged, seek out in them what is beautiful and worth knowing.
Well, here's the thing. At least for our "periphery kid," looking up from herself and out into the social world around her can be a challenge in and of itself. Even when she's starting with someone she already calls "friend."
You see, last Fall Sweetie's teacher divided her class into groups of 3 or 4 in order to work on a project. Sweet was put together with two other girls she knew. One of them she'd known since kindergarten and the other was a new girl as of 4th grade. She didn't know this one quite as well as the other, but they all really enjoyed being together on this project and the 3 of them became friends.
This was great because, as far as I could make of these girls (I helped out on a couple occasions with their project, so had the pleasure of getting to know them a bit more) they were great, fun, good kids and really great friend material for Sweetie. Furthermore, after speaking to the mom of one of these girl's a little bit (the girl Sweetie has known since kindergarten), she and I discovered that both our daughters have had recent challenging times with others in the class. Also, that both our girls tend to play on their own, perhaps trying to avoid the drama going on around them. How great it was, then, for the two of them to have found each other! Two good kids who just want to have fun without all the other girl-drama that's so apparently running rampant in small-town 5th grade.
And yet, as the days and weeks passed since the project was turned in, I could only see that Sweetie was back to her old ways of playing on her own - or with younger kids - during recess. "What about your new friends? What are they doing at recess?" And Sweetie wouldn't know. Sometimes, she'd say, they and a fourth girl would all hang out. But mostly, no. Sweetie plays what she wants on her own. "Are you still friends?" - Yeah! - "Then why don't you play together? Hang out?" - I don't know. We just don't. I like doing my own thing.
Whatever. Sweetie is who she is. She's always cared more about playing what she wants rather than who she's playing with. She's not a follower! She isn't "cliquey"! This is great! But now... despite our best efforts to encourage her, more recently, to seek out and bond more with some good girl friends, she's just… doing as she has always preferred to do.
But now, here's the thing...
Just this week I spoke again to this one girl's mom. She called me, upset with some girl-drama that had really come to a head for her daughter just the day before. This mom had remembered how she and I discussed our girls' peer-challenges before, and the fact that both of them were the victims of at least passive-aggressive bullying, if not full-out nastiness. Apparently, her daughter's tormentor - who has been bothering her daughter for about a year now - was only getting worse. She wanted to know if Sweetie was either bothered by the same girl or, at the very least, witnessed some bullying action towards her daughter or anyone else.
I didn't know, but I could tell this mom that Sweetie's bully was yet another girl in their class. I didn't know much about the bullying girl she was mentioning, but I assured her I'd ask Sweetie and find out what she'd noticed, if anything. Also, I let her know that I'd talk to Sweetie about stepping up and looking out for her daughter. She and I both expressed how much our girls told us they liked each other and called each other friend. We would be better, ourselves, about encouraging their spending time together and arranging for them to see each other on weekends whenever possible.
After school that day, and with the other mom's permission, I spoke to Sweetie about what was going on with her friend and the "mean girl." Sweetie said she herself has never had any problems with that particular mean-girl - she neither was friends with nor disliked her. Nor had Sweetie noticed this girl acting in a bullying way towards anyone, let alone her friend.
Hmph. What did I say earlier? That it's difficult for Sweetie to look up from herself and see what else is going on around her? Especially when it comes to human interaction - good or bad? Yes, difficult indeed.
"Well, you know how Rev. Shayna challenged you kids to look for someone on the periphery to get to know better? I think I know just the kid who needs you to be a better friend to her."
So Sweetie and I - and then Sweetie and I and Hubby later that night - had a good long talk about the difference between "being friendly with" and "being a friend to" someone. There is a difference, and it's profound. To make an actual friend will benefit each of them so much - especially as they get older and closer to the middle school years (next year!)
At 11 years old, you wouldn't think Sweetie'd need us to give examples of acts of friendship. But there we were, and Sweetie seemed happy to be and interested in being advised. Walk with her to chorus. Watch when the teacher turns his back to see that no one's making faces at her. Spend snack and lunch time together when possible. Seek her out on the playground and hang out with her. You don't have to play the on-going-every-day-never-ending running around game with the 3rd graders, even if they told you they "need" you. They don't - they'll be fine. She does need you. Be a friend.
We also discussed our church's theme of "Courage" this month and how the J. K. Rowling quote Sweetie heard in one of her recent church "Circles" was very fitting - with a twist - in light of what her friend has been dealing with and how Sweetie can help. The quote is, "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." To that, I added the bravery it takes to stand up for your friends.
It may sound like we're forcing a friendship here. Honestly, we're not. These girls really do like each other a lot. And I can tell you that my girl even thinks that she already has been a friend to this girl. They like each other! Isn't that what a friend is? Someone you like?
Well, not exactly. Not entirely. A friend is so much more than someone you just like. Someone you simply get along with and think is nice. If you find someone like that, then invest in them! Spend time with them, get to know them, make an effort, watch out for each other. Form a bond. You may have some struggles along the way, but ultimately won't regret it. And you may just have a friend for life.
Luckily for Sweetie - and this other sweet girl - they've already glanced at each other as they've stood together, separately, on the periphery. I look forward to watching Sweetie stretch from her comfortable spot alone on the edge to forming a deeper connection with someone not only worth knowing, but know well.
Hold on to each other tightly, girls. The next few years are going to require every ounce of effort and determination just to not lose your footing.
(Sweetie's new friend called her today, excitedly accepting Sweetie's invite to a sleepover at our house tomorrow. Look out, world - there's a new duo in town!)