Friendless on the Playground
She wasn’t really chubby, she was just bigger than the other kids in her sixth grade classroom. I noticed her immediately as a new face that hadn’t been there in the previous weeks.
Her bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks appeared cheerful, but her mouth was turned into a perpetual pout.
At recess she promptly sat down on a bench right next to the school doors and closed her eyes. The rest of the class ran across the parking lot to the playground.
“What’s the matter?”
She didn’t want to be outside. She didn’t want to be at school. She didn’t like it here. I told her I was sorry, and it was fine if she wanted to sit down during recess, but she needed to do it by the playground.
Reluctantly, she followed me over to the swing set. I asked about school, and what she liked to do and wanted to be when she grew up. Her one-word answers clearly conveyed her lack of interest, and after a few moments of failed conversation, she sat down on the ground and closed her eyes.
But the next day, once we got outside she followed me closely. I asked how her night was.
“It was okay. I was at my dad’s house.”
The stark reality of broken homes has become impossible to ignore in the past few weeks, after a rude awakening. One day I was telling the kids to bring home what they didn’t like from their lunch (packaged peaches are apparently not a hot commodity).
“Bring it to your sister.”
Rapid fire answer.
“My sister doesn’t like peaches.”
“Well then bring it home to your mom.”
Without missing a beat.
“I don’t live with my mom.”
“Oh.” Thankfully sixth graders care less about social faux pas than adults do. “Well, bring it home to whoever you live with.”
After that day I started listening for it. I heard it everywhere. There were dogs at mom’s house but no dogs at dad’s house, unkind step-fathers, annoying step-siblings, shoes and hats and books left at dad’s house, and grandparents who were often represented as better than both parents.
Two-thirds of my class of 20 didn’t have birth parents married to each other. They didn’t know any different.
When she told me she was at her dad’s house, a switch flipped in my mind. Suddenly, I didn’t care to listen to her talk about her favorite computer games or TikTok or her dog. I wanted to care about her and help her as a person. So I asked a blunt, probably not socially appropriate question.
“Do you like your step-mom?”
The floodgates opened. Instead of the curt answers I’d grown used to, she launched into a long description of how her step-dad didn’t like her, her step-mom was okay, and she only liked her younger half-brother sometimes.
When she finished, she looked a little less depressed. I thought about stopping, but we still had a lot of recess left, and she wasn’t going to leave my side. I guessed that very few people had talked to her about her life, so I asked another question.
“Does it make you said that your parents aren’t together?”
Shrugging, she gave a non-committal answer.
“It happened so long ago, I don’t even know.” She paused and squinted her eyes at the other kids swinging gaily on the swings. “But I really, really, really hate going back and forth.”
I thought about her life trajectory. Going back and forth from house to house, family to family, she was being trained that this was a normal lifestyle for her own kids. I saw her future — grown up with a few kids, divorced, fighting custody battles for her sons and daughters, and eventually making them split their time between their two parents.
I didn’t want that for her, and I didn’t want that for her kids. I took my chance.
“When you grow up, are you going to stay married to the same person for your whole life?”
She looked at me like it was a question she’d never heard before, but she didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I want to. I won’t cheat, and I hope he doesn’t either. Nobody likes a cheater.”
“That hurts people, doesn’t it?”
She nodded, adding,
“And I always feel sorry for people when they get hurt. I’m always hugging my little brother when he’s crying.”
“Do you know what that’s called?”
She looked at me curiously.
“That’s called compassion. That’s a really good way to be.”
“It’s when you feel sad for someone when they’re hurting. That’s really special that you are that way.”
Her eyes brightened, and for the first time since I’d seen her sitting in the back of the class with her chin on her hands, her mouth turned up into a tiny almost-grin.
Recess was over and the class trundled back inside.
The next day, she didn’t sit on the benches outside the school doors, and she didn’t try to go to sleep on the ground. Instead, she walked in circles around me, talking about her family and her ADD and her cousin who gave her shoes and her old friends at her school at her mom’s house, and how she didn’t know anybody here.
I tried to teach her the universal principal I’ve been telling teenagers as long as I’ve worked with them: The best way to make a friend is to be a friend and be kind.
When recess was almost over, she asked me,
“You know what stinks?”
“We only get you for recess. You’re my only friend here.”
It wasn’t hard. All I did was listen. And it reminded me that whether it’s a 12-year-old or an 88-year-old, people just want someone to listen to them and care about what they say.