Most of us, sooner or later, experience the feeling. Exclusion at the hands of others is never fun.
Near the end of my 7th grade school year, the private school I attended announced its closure. My father made arrangements for my transfer to another private school.
The new private school was exclusive and catered to well-to-do families. The first day of my 8th grade school year was disorienting and stressful.
The teachers were pleasant, but my fellow students were cliquish and unfriendly. I complained about it to my mother, who told me that kids are immature. Of course, adults can be immature, too.
I don’t really understand this. When you have so many people, each one inevitably fascinating, why would you limit yourself to only those like you? — Jodi Picoult, Off the Page
I only knew one other boy at the school. Like me, he transferred from our old school. We lunched alone together for a few weeks, feeling like social lepers. But then he became absorbed in a small group of boys he knew from his neighborhood.
And so, I ate lunch alone.
Make the world a little less cruel and heartless
Physical education class was the worst. Team captains selected players, and I was among the dregs who were chosen last. Not because I lacked ability, just status.
One lunch break, I tried humor to break the ice. I took the plastic spoon for my peach cup and hid it under my shoe. Then I turned to a few kids lunching near me and said, “Hey, have you guys seen my contact lens? I dropped it.”
The kids looked at me weirdly. Then I stood up and crunched on the spoon beneath my shoe. The kids sat speechless, staring at me for a second, and then they went back to chattering amongst themselves. Epic fail.
I decided humor was not a viable path to making new friends. So I resigned myself to eating lunch alone.
I told my father about the failed spoon joke at school, and how I didn’t like the other kids. Then I asked him what I was doing wrong.
“Just be yourself, Johnny. Don’t worry about the other kids. Let the best of who you are shine,” my father said.
It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless. — L. R. Knost
Each recess and lunch, I found refuge in the library, where I enjoyed reading books and drawing cartoons in my binder. In fact, I increasingly escaped into my artwork as a way to pass the time.
A teacher noticed my creative abilities and often chatted with me in the library. She learned that, in addition to my drawing talents, I played the piano and liked to sing. She suggested I join the cast of the school’s annual holiday music production.
At first, I declined, since I didn’t know anyone. But somehow the teacher got me to sign up, and before I knew it, I was selected to be a dancer. My assigned partner was a lovely Iranian girl who boarded at the school.
She blushed and so did he
Thanks to the musical production rehearsals, I became friends with my dance partner and a few of the other performers. Being from Iran, my dance partner shared her own feelings of awkwardness and exclusion. We became kindred spirits.
The rest of my 8th-grade year improved. I had a few students from the musical production to hang out with, and especially my new Iranian friend.
In December, shortly before graduation, the holiday musical was held. My parents attended, and it was a big night for me. There was thunderous applause, and afterward, I introduced my dance partner to my parents.
Pictures were taken, and my new friend hugged me tightly. We chatted excitedly, sometimes finishing one another’s thoughts. I remember feeling a little flutter of affection in my heart.
She blushed and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. — Voltaire, Candide
I learned a lot that 8th-grade year. I stopped trying to win friends with lame jokes. I accepted my apartness and used it to focus on reading and drawing in the library. My creativity was noticed by a teacher, which led to my participating in the musical production.
If you use your apartness to hone your creative skills and unique talents, doors can open up for you.
They recognized in each other “an apartness”
Most people have read the book or seen the movie “To Kill A Mocking Bird,” by the late Harper Lee. It’s a remarkable story about racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.
Harper Lee was a tomboy growing up. Many readers assumed that she patterned the novel’s narrator, Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed “Scout”) after herself. When asked, Lee denied this, saying she identified more with her novel’s reclusive character Arthur “Boo” Radley.
Charles J. Shields is an American biographer of mid-century American novelists and writers like Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut. Shields wrote the following about Harper Lee:
Harper Lee and Truman Capote became friends as next-door neighbors in the late 1920s, when they were about kindergarten age. From the start, they recognized in each other ‘an apartness,’ as Capote later expressed it; and both loved reading. When Lee’s father gave them an old Underwood typewriter, they began writing original stories together. — Charles J. Shields
Just as I found companionship in the 8th grade with an Iranian girl who shared my feelings of apartness, Harper Lee found similar solace in her friendship with Truman Capote.
Capote was ridiculed as a boy for his lisp and advanced vocabulary. He and Harper Lee loved to read. The two escaped their feelings of alienation by writing and acting out stories together.
Harper Lee and Truman Capote turned their apartness into creative escapism. Both would go on to become successful novelists. Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was immediately successful, as was Capote’s non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” which detailed the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.
Nobody is born to blend in
When my son was little, he bounced around to a few different schools. As a result, it was difficult for him to make friends. Much like me when I was his age, he retreated to the school library to draw.
I remember worrying about him, hoping he would be spared the feelings of apartness that I felt. Hoping he’d learn that it’s okay to be unique.
Fortunately, thanks to my wife’s help, my son embraced reading and his creativity. His amazing drawings were appreciated by a few other boys in his school, and they became friends. My wife and I affectionately dubbed them “The Nerd Herd.”
For a really long time, I thought being different was a negative thing. But as I grew older, I started to realize we were all born to stand out; nobody is born to blend in. — Halima Aden
My son became interested in martial arts, eventually earning his black belt. Looking back, I’m glad he was not part of the popular crowd in school. As a result, he developed a strong interior life, fueled by good books and creativity.
My son is now 23-years-old, completing his University computer science degree, and serving as a United States Air Force reservist. He still interacts with his old “Nerd Herd” buddies, spends time with his girlfriend, and has developed quiet confidence and self-assuredness.
Going against the grain of society
Your apartness in life doesn’t mean you won’t succeed or find your way. There are lots of people who are different or unconventional, yet they go on to successful careers and lives.
I think being different, going against the grain of society is the greatest thing in the world. — Elijah Wood
Here are three tips for how to leverage your apartness.
- Skill development. Harper Lee and Truman Capote knew they were unique. Instead of trying to fit in with the popular kids, they read books, fed their minds, and wrote stories together. The most popular kids at their high schools are likely forgotten today, but Lee and Capote are both famous writers.
- Birds of a feather. It’s often not hard to find a kindred spirit, you just have to pay attention and look around. Harper Lee and Truman Capote recognized that they were both unique. My Iranian dance partner shared my feelings of apartness at school. My son’s “Nerd Herd” buddies banded together to play video games, take up archery, and overcome those awkward teen years together.
- Help someone else. Harper Lee traveled with and helped Truman Capote for several years as he researched and wrote “In Cold Blood.” I joined the Rotary Club during my law enforcement career, to help others. My son volunteers at his girlfriend’s work to lend a hand. Volunteerism, and helping others, can build your confidence and enrich your life. Especially if you feel apart from others.
If you feel an apartness in your life, don’t give up. Hidden in whatever makes you different may be the key to your future.
Harper Lee and Truman Capote used their apartness to read books and write stories. Their apartness became a creative asset.
My lunchtime drawing attracted a teacher, who led me to the school musical production. My son’s apartness, and drawing in the school library, attracted the attention of like-minded boys, and the “Nerd Herd” was formed.
Look at your unique talents and abilities. Focus on developing your skills, find kindred spirits, and help others. Don’t worry about blending in. Go against the grain of society a little, and the world will be your oyster.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life lessons. To follow along, check out my free Saturday Newsletter here.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Photo credit: Sasha Freemind on Unsplash
Internal artworks by John P. Weiss