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Commentary: The New Kid

By Bernadette Ruof

Buffalo, NY – At the start of a new school year, is there anything better than a new notebook, its shiny vinyl cover promising you that you will do the best writing and ciphering this year? How about a handful of new pens? I love the clicking sound of a new writing implement, efficient, bold and signaling readiness.

New school supplies, new clothes, new teachers, perhaps a new building -- all of these give us more excitement and hope than fear and dread.

But being new, a new kid at school, a new teacher, a parent new to the educational system or even new at your first job or new at retirement -- there's where the fear resides.

Being the new kid anywhere is not easy. Every move you make, you question. Should I sit here or there? becomes a monumental decision when walking into a room for the first time. At lunch, do I eat the lunch my Dad prepared? What if they laugh at my bag of Doritos? And then I get a nickname. Like Nacho Man? Better throw it out and be hungry.

Once my son, in his first week of 9th grade in a new building, an open structure where classrooms looked more like office space and girls and boys bathrooms were indistinguishable, found his new kid status to be a problem. Upon entering a lavatory which turned out to be the girls, he was about to turn around and leave when he heard 2 girls entering behind him. Rather than get caught, he ran to a stall, hopped up upon the toilet seat and waited for 20 minutes until he could leave without being seen. When you're the new kid, even the simplest moment can turn into a disaster.

When you're the new kid, everything is foreign to you. You have suddenly become dumb. You have to make decisions and there's no guarantee that your former good judgment will prevail in this new situation. Panic ensues when you can't find a room. You lose your breath when asked a simple question in class. If the teacher asks you about your older brother, do you smile and tell her how much fun you had camping this summer or mumble Fine and look down, fearing too much enthusiasm will bring disdain from your peers?

My friend Annie went to 7 schools by the time she was in second grade. She was always the new kid. She didn't have the security of a friend in her class. As she attended the first day of 1st grade in Louisiana, her Mom dressed her as any of us would have dressed a child. Typical dress, shoes, socks, nothing outlandish. But when she got to school, she was the new kid from up North and the only one with shoes on. The kids looked at her as if she were from Mars. "Don't you know it's summahtime? We don't wear shoes in the summah!" said one of her new classmates. Poor Annie. All she could think was, "How could I mess up just getting dressed?"

It's tough to be new at anything. Adults have the same fears as kids do. We just hide it better. I couldn't even breathe for the first hour of my first knitting class. I felt stupid, made a million mistakes, all thumbs and knots, and I was the only one who didn't know everyone else. It was like a little club of knitters and I didn't belong. It was scary and I was 40 something years old at the time.

But a woman sitting next to me eventually offered me a yarn holder which I didn't bring with me and soon we were talking away about our jobs and lives. After one person connects with another, the newness wears off. We know a name. We know a face for the next day's class. Someone to sit next to. Someone to laugh with.

New things like notebooks and shoes help us to navigate the first day of any new experience. They are talismans for us. We need them.

But we need people more. The person who gives us directions, or shows us how to use equipment or where to sit or how to spend free time. The person who includes us into her group or his team. I've been lucky enough to have met a hundred people like this in all my "new kid" experiences. Perhaps today it's time for me to be a friend to the new kid. Shoes or no shoes.

Listener-commentator Bernadette Ruof teaches English at Williamsville East High School.