Friends nourish us by seeing our goodness when our own eyes are clouded.
I’ll never forget my 5th grade friend. It was Steck Elementary, a new school in a new neighborhood and I didn’t know anyone. The very first lunch break of the very first day found me sitting by myself in the lunchroom eating a sandwich my mom had packed for me. There was hardly anyone there. That’s because the kids at Steck all went home for lunch. It was uncool to eat in the lunchroom.
I didn’t finish my sandwich. I walked around the playground and watched the kids come back from their “at-home” lunches and gather in groups. Boys congregated by the fence and the monkey bars. Girls played a game called Four Square. A ball came flying at me from the Four Square games, and I dodged it just in time. The girls playing the game were staring at me. “Throw it back,” one of them yelled. I picked up the ball, but when I threw it, it went off to the side, bounced and hit a piece of playground equipment, then rolled several feet away from the Four Square game. The girls laughed at me, shook their heads, and I heard one of them say “a real knucklehead,” which made them all laugh more.
That was an all is lost moment. I fought back tears. I hated this school. Why did my mom always have to move us when she got a new job? I turned away from the laughing, balled up my fists and jammed them into my jacket pockets.
I felt her standing there before I turned around and saw her. With confidence and comfort, a little girl with thick glasses and a big smile eyes looped her arm with mine and pull me away from the side of the building. “Four Square is so stupid,” she said. “I’m Jeannie Stein. Have you ever been a Girl Scout?” And thus began a friendship that assuaged the pain of being the new kid.
What I didn’t know then, was that welcoming the stranger is a core principal of Judaism and Jeannie Stein was a Jew, but I found that out when the Girl Scout question led me to a meeting room at her temple. When I finally learned the piece about welcoming the stranger, I was in my 40’s. Memory transported me back to 10-year old Jeannie Stein, the kind little girl who had welcomed me when I was a stranger.
I didn’t get to know her for more than a year, because my mom got another job, and we moved again. But for a year, being friends with Jeannie Stein was like having another home. We played Barbies together when I was starting to feel like maybe I was too old to still be playing with dolls. She was the last little girl that I ever played dolls with. When she looped her arm through mine that day, I didn’t know that we’d be crossing a bridge together, one that led from childhood to something else.
I’ve been the new kid quite a few times since that day in the 5th grade, most recently, since my husband and I moved to Austin. It was a courageous thing that we did, uprooting and transplanting ourselves in a matter of months.
A big move is filled with risk, unknowns and excitement. Eventually, I’d adapt. I’d discover the best grocery store, the favorite restaurant, the closest bookstore. But just like it was in 5th grade, my biggest concern was whether I could make new friends. The feeling of being the new kid, standing alone on the playground comes back. My eyes are searching the horizon for a Jeannie Stein. Under the big Texas sky, my current and closest relationships currently amount to repairmen and contractors.
Women are social creatures. We need each other’s company in order to thrive. In this new place I’ve been taunted by thoughts that all the friendships have already been made, that women are already coupled and in groups and there wouldn’t be room for me. That proved not true, of course, but I had to muster the courage to reach out.
On a website called Next Door, a resource for individual neighborhoods, I posted that I’d like to find a writing group or a book group. In less than 24 hours I had 5 responses from people who shared my interests. The response that touched me the most was from a young woman who wrote that she’d moved here in April and hadn’t made any friends yet. Then added, “How do you make friends when you’re a grown up?” I reached back to her with an invitation for coffee, but she never responded. It made me think that perhaps she didn’t really want new friends, that she was closed off to them.
My new Jeannie Stein showed up in the form of a woman named Melinda who’d asked for a phone conversation. I learned that she was a 7th generation Texan who had horses and a book group, a perfect combination for a Texan in my eyes. In her gentle drawl that was as sweet as dripping honey, she extended an invitation to join her group. Metaphorically, she looped her arm through mine and I knew that everything was going to be okay.
What we learned as children continues to inform us, regardless of how grown up, sophisticated, or world wise we think we are.
Melinda told me that the book we’d discuss at the book group is Educated, by Tara Westover. Westover’s book is now a part of my extended Jeannie Stein story. The book is a memoir about self-invention and becoming the best kind of human being that you can be. I’m hoping that I will be a good friend and remember to reach out to the stranger in the same way that the Jeannie Stein’s of the world have reached out to me.