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I went to school today - to the cafeteria, specifically - a place where the school's social hierarchy is in full display.

You remember the school cafeteria. The cool kids sat at one table. The drama freaks at another. The band geeks ate in the corner. The jocks and cheerleaders took center stage. 

Every television show or Hollywood film ever made about school-age kids features at least one shot of the cafeteria and the social angst and stereotypes that fill it. 

We're supposed to remember it that way. 

But Esme's wasn't like that. Not yet.

And I can't recall mine. Not really.

Last month, I sent my reserved, offbeat, first-born to kindergarten. This past weekend, I celebrated my high school's 20-year reunion. School and friendships, cliques and social standing have been very much on the brain. 

Esme talks non-stop about her school day from the instant she hops off the bus: how many people got in trouble, what she played with at center time, the books she read, the artwork she made. But she doesn't talk much about her classmates and if she's made friends.

So I worry. As I'm wont to do.

I spotted Esme first thing on my way to cafeteria duty. She stood quietly outside the bathroom with another classmate, waiting for the others to finish. She looked so small. So fragile with her hands held behind her back. The other little girl seemed supremely confident; she bounced in place, shook her hair and gave off an easy-breezy, happy vibe. 

Just as I started to feel a tinge of sorrow, started to wonder whether Esme would ever make friends, the confident happy one threw her arms around Esme's neck and wrapped her leg around her waist. 

Just like that. A wacky bear hug of love and friendship. Esme smiled.

I met her class in the cafeteria and I admit I was surprised by what I saw. I expected Hollywood. I found Normal.

Older kids - I think they were sixth-graders - flooded in around me as I stood waiting for the kindergartners. They grabbed milks, opened lunch boxes, laughed, shouted, smiled. I didn't see anyone who looked visibly uncomfortable. Didn't see a single person sitting alone or out of the fray. And I was looking. 

I saw flirtations and friendships. I saw quiet kids and loud ones. 

Esme's class sits in assigned seats. But, like the older kids, they all seemed to belong. Esme sat across from a joker who blew air into his juice bag and made the straw pop. Everyone laughed. Even Esme. 

I suppose the truth is murkier than Hollywood paints it. Because, while I'd like to believe Esme's class sang "Kumbaya" after I left, I know that's probably not true now and certainly won't be so later. 

Perhaps I saw the seeds of what's to come in the quiet and the loud, the joker and the flirt.

I wonder which one I was when I was 5. I know who people thought I was at 15. But I wasn't that person then, or now.  

I think it's safe to say I ran with a popular crowd. I played sports. I dated an attractive athlete. I went to loud, boozy parties. 

People assumed one thing of me even though I knew something entirely different. They probably didn't think I was a social misfit. But I was. They probably thought I was self-confidant. But I wasn't. They probably didn't think I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Yet I did. 

I know I said mean things though I don't remember what.  I deeply regret them. 

Over the past 10 months, in anticipation of the reunion, I've reconnected with high school classmates on Facebook. The happiest surprise has been the meaningful friendships I've started with folks I never took the time to know. 

Some of them feel like kindred spirits: our interests so similar, values shared. How did we miss each other way back then? Why? Are schools set up to stratify people? Are adolescent minds? Is it simply human nature? Or was I just an ass?

At the reunion, some folks seemed to hang only with their old crowd but, happily, most people mixed. And started to meet one another as adults without the hollow, unhelpful labels. 

I guess the lesson for Esme as she grows is that the happy lunch tables of elementary school may cede to more complicated spheres in middle school and beyond. 

The bad news is it may take 20 years for people to move beyond them. The good news is that many finally do.

Reader Comments (3)

Oh, Dana. Love this! You have the rare, added stress (or relief?) of being able to see Esme in school, interacting with the other children. Most of us parents only know what we're told. Which, in my case, is practically nothing. So I go about my day just believing that she's getting bear hugs, holding hands and skipping all day with her little friends. :) Also, I knew you 20 years ago. Though I didn't know you well, I did know that you were smart, pretty and athletic. I also know that when you're 18, your brain is not done developing. So we were all 'asses.' :D Now, we are all confident, accomplished women embracing what we have now and will continue to have in the future. I love that we are getting to know one another now.

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy

I have a seriouslyhard time thinking of you as a high school jockette who hung out with the "cool"/rude kids, said rude things and pushed kids around and generally was a jerk. I think you were perhaps not the person you now wish you had been - you, quietly hanging with that crowd, enjoying the good stuff, trying to ignore the not-so-good and maybe not speaking out and feeling guilty about it - so you build backwards from that and think how horrible you had been. If someone comes forward to say, "Dana, thank God you have now confessed how awful you were, and now I can forgive you for X," I'll change my opinion. Forward the testimony if it comes. Or just send me your confessions. I'd love that reading.

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Editor

Wow Dana, you are such a great writer! Your insight is amazing. Like Peggy, I knew you a little 20 years ago and thought you were definitely a cool kid, who was confident and smart. I never remember you being mean or an ass! I think all of us, when we look back, have some regrets about things we might have said but don't remember now. We were young and naive at 17 or 18 years old. We thought we knew it all, but now know better. It is fun to see how we all turned out now that we've trully experienced life and have grown into happy, successful adults. I enjoy reading your blog. I think FB has been such a great catalyst to making new old friends! I look forward to making it to some of the cougar events to get a better chance to catch up with everyone. Thanks again for all of your hard work to make the reunion happen...tons of fun!

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Patterson

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