Everybody likes to belong. At some level, most people look for acceptance and community among other human beings. It’s natural. Even non-conformists like to find community among other non-conformists, whether they admit it or not.
Perhaps the need to belong can be seen in its most evident forms in junior high, when peer pressure becomes a very real, and sometimes ugly, force.
Seventh grade was a year of intersection in my school system. The highest grade in my elementary school was sixth, as was the case for another elementary school in town. Both of those elementary schools were funneled into 7th grade at a third school across town, where those kids had been together as classmates ever since kindergarten. Add the onset of adolescence to the mix, and it was a recipe for widespread misery because essentially, you had 3 camps of kids – the Chalkville kids, the Clay kids, and the Hewitt kids – thrown together and expected to live in harmony in a big melting pot during the universally tempestuous year of 7th grade.
At the beginning of that year, I was apprehensive. I loved my little elementary school and I was not keen on the whole melting pot concept. I worried about finding my classes. And having lockers. And of course, above all, belonging.
Homerooms were coldly, impersonally divided by the first letter of your last name. I walked in that first day and saw a “Team Chalkville” friend nearby whose last name began with a letter right next to mine in the alphabet. I lifted up a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the beginning consonant of my last name. Something so insignificant was about to determine my entire 7th grade destiny.
As we nervously whispered to each other, she told me about a marvelous opportunity. Some of her friends, including girls from these intersecting schools, who I had yet to meet (but, no matter) had formed a “group.” She would see about getting me in. I nodded enthusiastically. Ready-made friends? Oh, yes, please! I was introduced to the officers of the group, voted on by secret ballot (yes, truly), and by the end of that first week, found myself belonging. Oh, joy! Mom and Dad, isn’t this fabulous? (They weren’t nearly as thrilled as I was.)
Everything was rosy until I had a falling-out with one of the group members, over what…I didn’t know. And still don’t. And I went to sit at an unapproved location in the lunchroom because of it. Suddenly, artificially belonging wasn’t quite so much fun anymore.
Because I didn’t.
Thus ended my only real foray into the world of cliques. Thus began my distate for elitism.
Somehow I got through it. Like everybody does. I believe that those girls, looking back on history, would now join me in shaking our heads at our immaturity…and wondering why we behaved that way.
We behaved that way because, given the chance, people will do anything to feel accepted, and it starts young. Sometimes adults behave that way, too. Maybe not with secret ballots, but with plenty of nonverbal signals. It’s horrible to feel out, it’s good to feel in. I know that those years are approaching for my own children, and I also know that with the advent of many new challenges, the world is different now.
But peer pressure is not.
It has always been there, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
It is amazing how, given the benefit of time, things that seemed so important back then are not nearly as important now.
Not important at all.
I wish I could have had a little talk with my young self and told her that. It would have saved her a lot of heartache.
I would have told her that the girl she would sit with at the unapproved lunchroom table would remain her closest friend, 23 years later. I would have told her not to take everything so hard. I would have told her Jesus loves her unconditionally. I would have told her that other kids aren’t thinking about her nearly as much as she is afraid they are. I would have told her that, in many ways, the adult world is easier than the kid world. And that she would get there one day.
Sooner than she thinks.