Updated: May 17
As middle school approached, I began to lobby my parents to leave my private school to attend the public school that all the neighborhood kids attended. I didn’t really have friends at the small Lutheran school I was attending. I never really fit in. At most, I could say I had two “sometimes” girlfriends. It was the classic three-girl triad scenario. I was almost always the one left on the outside.
My dad finally relented, and my “new life” was about to begin at a public school. In my head, as the “new kid,” I would be swarmed with new friends and have a clean start with no preconceived notions about who I was. I’d also be able to hang out with neighborhood kids that I vaguely knew. It was going to be great.
I remember walking into the building, overwhelmed with how expansive the halls were, filled with lockers. The sixth-grade hallway was long enough to not be able to see the end of it. As kids swarmed the school, I quickly realized I was one of the tiniest fish in what had become an ocean. My middle school had more than 500 children. What I didn’t realize was that the incoming sixth-grade class was actually kids from three or four elementary schools. So many of them were new to one another. They were also clinging on to groups of friends from their previous schools.
During every class, I would scan the room for a familiar face, only to find none. I had been diagnosed with a reading disability in elementary school, but the extent of modified learning was being told to use a bookmark to keep my place and to visit a tutor after school. At this new school, they had “tracks” you could take of classes: “smart” kids’ classes, “normal” kids’ classes and “dumb” kids’ classes. I was put in the “dumb” kids’ classes for English due to my reading disability.
My self-esteem was already hitting rock bottom, so I remember giving up before I even started, and failing my classes to purposely be moved into the “dumb” kid classes for my other subjects too. The work was easier. Less homework. Higher grades. Win-win-win.
During this time, the same ups-and-downs of unpredictability at home continued. Some days I hadn’t showered (or used the sink as I had been taught). Other days I didn’t have clean clothes. I had been given a drive-by lesson in basic hygiene without any consistency or reinforcement of the importance at home. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to show up to school not wearing deodorant or having brushed my teeth. I was a mess.
My one respite was choir. I sat in the front row next to a sweet, shy girl named Brianna. I liked her because she seemed to have some of that same underlying sadness. She had bad days where she’d show up with bedhead from the day before, having not showered. A kindred spirit, of sorts. I wouldn’t call us friends, but we had become cordial. She had a couple friends from her elementary school that were in choir. During the breaks, the kids would congregate into groups to chat, and I remember feeling self-conscious that she had friends to go speak with. I sat in my chair waiting for class to resume.
We remained chair-mates over the next year. I still had not made any friends. I would dabble, but it seemed the kids who would try to take me in were the ones just as troubled as me. I’d find myself in scenarios being invited to smoke, do drugs or have sex. I’d hang out a time or two and then quietly disengage, deciding it was better just to keep to myself.
Around this age, I had begun to master the art of maintaining two storylines—one in which I was friendless, lonely, sad and had horrible self-esteem versus the one who smiled, was charismatic, confident and optimistic. Everyone seemed to prefer the second version of me better. So that’s the version I showed everyone at home, school, clubs, practices and events. I wanted to be the person others wanted to see.
In seventh grade, Brianna invited me to her overnight birthday party. It was my first overnight birthday party ever. I was overjoyed just to be invited to someone’s party. It was going to be a small group, as Brianna didn’t have many friends either. There were maybe four of us, including Brianna’s best friend who was in choir with us, but I hadn’t really gotten to know her well. She was a tall and pretty girl named Cindy, with a big warm smile and a genuine laugh, and Brianna’s best friend from elementary school. Thao, a foreign exchange student, barely spoke English. I knew neither of them well.
I remember my mom offering to come get me if I wanted to come home, as I was feeling anxious over whether I’d fit in or have anything to say to them. The party itself was a blur. I’m sure there was cake and maybe some games.
But the standout moment was when Brianna and Thao passed out by 10 p.m., and Cindy and I were still awake. I remember her asking, “So, what’s your deal?” It was a bit of a jarring question and even harder to answer. I remember stammering through some form of an answer, telling her about my small private school before I transferred. That one question had broken the barrier loose and what followed was both of us staying up the entire night talking. No sleep and genuine interest in one another.
It was the first time I had engaged and bonded with someone my own age. I found myself enjoying the company and the person. Our bond was immediate and inseparable. I still feel bad for “stealing” Brianna’s best friend (it was especially awkward when I continued to sit next to Brianna in choir the remainder of the year). But it was one of those situations where neither of us were able to help it. It just happened, organically, the way it was meant to.
We learned that night we also lived in the same subdivision, just four blocks apart. That turned into walking to school together daily and coming to her house every afternoon after school. Her house was larger than mine, not too fancy but the perfect amount of homey.
Her mom and dad were older, maybe in their 50s, and had celebrated decades of marriage and love with one another. Her father was a minister, and her mother was an organ player for their church. Cindy was one of six children, including a twin brother who was in our grade. When I was at their home, I was surrounded by the things I lacked in my own home life—structure, strong family bonds, and a stable mother and father figure. They had healthy sibling interactions and home-cooked meals every night. I found myself preferring their home to my own; there’s was clean.
School was immediately better. I arrived every day with a friend in tow. We would stay with one another until our first class, and pass notes between every period (and write notes to one another during our classes). We would eat lunch together and count down the hours until the end of the school day where we’d meet up to walk home and go to her house.
Early on, Cindy invited me to one of her church events. This did not sound fabulous to me, but I knew that Cindy and her family were very involved in their church. I pictured the long boring services I had to do once a week at my old school. I would chant things back and forth to the pastor, say the Lord’s Prayer and then mentally go to my happy place for an hour while I waited for the time to pass. Although I was a skeptic, she was convincing. Cindy told me her church wasn’t like that. So I went.
To my surprise, she was right. It was different and really fun. It was a youth activity called an “Afterglow,” where all the kids our age were doing an event. I felt that same anxiousness of having to surround myself with strangers and the usual rejection I was used to. This time there was some comfort in knowing I had at least one friend with me, plus I knew her twin brother. Unlike my other experience with kids my age though, everyone was welcoming, warm and friendly.
We were loaded into a church van, and they sang songs as we drove. Cindy noticed that I didn’t know the songs and said, “Erica sounds like the Little Mermaid when she sings. You guys should hear her.” I was both scared to death and flattered. The other kids immediately started asking me to sing for them. With knots in my stomach, I sang a Little Mermaid song (how could I not with that introduction?) and I was immediately surrounded with shock and amazement.
People were complimenting me and acknowledging a talent. The feeling was so foreign but felt really good. I cherished that small boost of self-confidence. As much as I disliked surrounding myself with so many people, my “cup” was slowly being filled by the kindness, warmth, compliments and interest of others. So I decided to pull out that second side of my personality and engage, rather than retreat.
That was the beginning of what would become full immersion into Cindy’s family’s church and family. We went to two church services on Sundays and Wednesdays, plus Cindy and I wanted to be part of every club, event and activity. I was asked to sing for church services on a regular basis, and I had become a bit of a novelty—the child who comes to church without a family, most likely having some awareness that my home life was a little turbulent at times.
The church part was fine, but looking back, it was the feeling of a community and belonging that had hooked me. I saw all these families that appeared to be very strong and connected. I looked up to these adults in healthy relationships and thought, “I want to be like them when I’m older” or “I want to have a family one day that looks like that.”
I basically emancipated myself in middle school. I liked living with Cindy’s family more than being at home. I had become their seventh child, and they welcomed me into their home. They knew to set a place for me at the table each night. Often, I stayed the night at their house instead of my own.
I did still bounce back and forth to my Mom’s house, especially since it was just a few blocks away. I’d normally come home to gather up clothes or get belongings for my next jaunt of overnights at Cindy’s house.
My mom would go through occasional bouts of asking if I’d stay home to have dinner with the family or spend more time at home due to how frequently I’d been gone. This is when I learned more about IQs, the 1 percent versus 2 percent, and grew to respect my mother’s new boyfriend.