“Don’t worry. It’s all right. I’m sure no one will think you’re my friend.”
I’ve been watching Netflix’s new series, Anne with an E. As much as I loved the old Anne of Green Gables series of books and mini series, this one is deeper than those were – grittier and with more human complexity. It takes Anne’s history as an orphan, worked like a slave and abused, seriously.
And it doesn’t sentimentalize the brutality of children. We too easily accept “teasing” and “bullying” as normal rather than recognizing them as the terrorizing acts they are.
Anne Shirley’s vibrant imagination is not just a charming gift of creativity. It is a survival skill, a life raft that keeps her moving through the unlivable.
Those words, “Don’t worry. It’s all right. I’m sure no one will think you’re my friend,” are her response to a schoolmate who is horrified to learn she will be staying with Anne’s family for a few days after her house has caught on fire (and been saved from complete destruction by Anne’s quick thinking).
I’m fairly sure I said much the same words myself more than once while growing up.
There aren’t really words to express what it feels like to know your peers despise you, and that you have to go back to school with them the next day anyway. And the day after that. And the year after that.
For me, it started in fourth grade. By fifth, life was a nightmare, and much like Anne, I fled to my imagination to survive by reading through each day. Recess, lunch, any free moment, I lived in the world of whatever I was reading.
I remember the first time my mother had “room mother” duty and visited my class. That day after school she told me, “You’re right, they hate you. I don’t understand why, but they do.”
I was surprised she could see it. Adults generally didn’t. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner*, in particular. I adored her – we all did. She was blonde and young and good natured and fun. And she was concerned that I didn’t socialize and play with the other girls. She took me aside to talk about it and ask if there was a problem.
There was of course. The girls mocked and ostracized me, and her daughter was the ring leader (in a move that I doubt would happen today even in a small private Christian school like ours, her daughter had been assigned to her own mother’s class).
What was I supposed to say? Your daughter is cruel and mean, and I don’t want to play with her any more than she wants to play with me? Kids know better. At least I did. I said something about not knowing how to jump rope (the activity the other girls spent most of their recess time on and that I could never understand the attraction of).
So, Mrs. Gardner made a project out of me. One recess she enlisted her daughter and her friends to teach me to jump rope at recess. I remember all of us kids looking at each other and silently agreeing to go along with the fiction – to protect Mrs. Gardner from the real world.
The next recess we all returned to our regular ways.
After a week or two, Mrs. Gardner tried a different tactic and suspended my library privileges in an attempt to deprive me of my regular refuge.
This wasn’t the first time a teacher tried that with me. In second grade at a different school, a student teacher had a scheme in which we had to read so many books at each reading level before we could advance to reading books in the next. The first level was mostly Dr. Seuss, and I’d pretty much skipped that level long before. Those were “baby books” to me, and I refused to read them on principle. The librarian, Mrs. Redmond, liked me (librarians always liked me) and helped me find other books until the teacher made her stop. Mrs. Redmond told me to get my mother to take me downtown to the public library and get me my own library card so I could read whatever books I wanted, and that’s exactly what we did. (Librarians are more subversive than one might think!)
So when Mrs. Gardner took my school library privileges away, I just started bringing my books from the library downtown. And they saved my sanity and my heart.
Children can be brutal, and adults can be naive fools about them.
In the years that followed (I graduated high school with pretty much the same group of kids and it was one of the happiest days of my life), we all learned to survive. I learned the girls who would tolerate me hanging around (I had to sit somewhere at lunch), and they learned, well, to tolerate me, I suppose. The ostracizing became less overt, or maybe we all just got used to the way things were.
They didn’t understand me nor I them. And for all her good intentions, Mrs. Gardner had only made things worse.
Madeleine L’Engle said once, “If we ever, God forbid, manage to make each child succeed with his peer group, we will produce a race of bland and faceless nonentities, and all poetry and mystery will vanish from the face of the earth.”
I read that when I was 11 or 12, in A Circle of Quiet, the journal in which L’Engle speaks of her own misfit childhood. It helped save my sanity and was perhaps the first time I felt affirmed in being who I was.
I didn’t fit, but it was okay – I didn’t need to.
We shouldn’t have to fit to belong, to be loved. To be delighted in and invited to bring all of ourselves to the table of community and friendship. It’s in embracing our differences that we are rich. Colors, cultures, genders, attractions, affinities, quirks, wounds, and gifts. There are colors of creation we have never imagined. Assimilation creates a gray blob. Melt all the crayons together and you get something so boring as to be useless.
But mix them up in a bowl together, each distinct and wholly itself, and you have the means to create something new and infinitely beautiful.
Don’t worry. It’s alright. You don’t have to be like me for us to be friends.
Actually, I’d rather you weren’t.
*Not her name