Before going forward, it would helpful to remember your middle and high school days. Remember the lockers and the colors of the hallways. Think about the locations of the bathrooms and where the library was in relation to the gym. Remember the gathering places. Think about your experience and the divisions of popularity. Now, think about your circle of friends and where you sat in the cafeteria. Think about the people you sat with (or didn’t) and then think about the groups of people that always seemed to flock together. Think about the way the looked and how they dressed.
The following experience is mine as it relates to me; however, before going forward, I think in all honesty and with full disclosure, I must admit that I was “That” student.
I was that kid in class, acting out, defiant, and painfully uncomfortable in my own skin. I struggled with sever insecurity as well as depression and social awkwardness. If not the smallest, I was certainly smaller than anyone else I knew at the school. I also looked much younger than the others in my class, which is where some of the teasing began.
I struggled with and endured an undiagnosed learning disability, which meant I struggled with the subjects in class. Math was the worst. My reading was not at the level of others and comprehension was poor. This was uncomfortable and challenging. I struggled scholastically and interpersonally. I struggled with minor panic attacks between each class, which eventually became enough for me to cut class or simply leave school.
This was me. I was baby-faced and small. I did not have an athletic ability nor did I excel in class. But like anyone else, I was trying to find my place and see where I fit in. However, this would not be an easy task. This is when I learned about status. This is when I learned what it meant to be popular or unpopular. This is also when I learned about the gossip machines and the rumor factories and how they spun. I learned machines such as these could not only ruin someone’s reputation, they could also destroy and demolish the otherwise exciting rites of passage of a student’s classroom experience.
I remember the first time I saw the cafeteria in my middle school. This room was huge to me. Previously, we were in grade school and our classes sat together. And true there were cliques in the classroom; however, they were small and less intimidating. But fast forwarding to middle school, suddenly, the groups and cliques grew enormous in size. In my case, three different elementary schools blended into one middle school. This meant there were more people to interact with, which meant more crowds, more cliques, more people to contend with, and more divisions of popularity to impress. In all honesty, I was never aware of how small I was until this time.
I recall my first trip into the lunch room perfectly. My back was to the double-doored entryway with the hallways behind me. The room was widespread and each table was filled with different students that ranged in age from my grade to older.
On the right hand side were the school’s athletes. They were the trophy students and the good looking. This was a group that was recognized by everyone else in school.
On the left side was an opposite crowd. They were the troublemakers and behavioral problems. This side was made up of popular people as well; however, their reasons for popularity were different. They were not known because they scored touchdowns or played lacrosse or went out with cheerleaders. No, this side was the rebellious side. This side was known because they told off teachers or pulled fire alarms to get out of class.
This is an excellent analogy for teenage life as it relates to the cafeteria. There was the left side and the right side. The middle, however, was a sea of faceless, socially unknown, mostly unpopular, and basically unnoticed students.
In my eyes, there could be nothing worse than living in the middle. To a teenager, there is no fate worse than feeling unmentioned, unwanted, or unremarkable. No one asks to be uninvolved or feel left out. No student chooses to be uncool or unpopular. But unfortunately, students have their own brand of government. And kids have their own form of hierarchy.
I never knew who decided these standards. I was never sure who was allowed to pick which people are cool and which people aren’t —I just knew that I never wanted to feel left out. I never wanted to be that kid in the middle of the cafeteria, eating alone, no friends, and wishing to God that I was cool too.
My social anxiety progressed so terribly that I would fake being sick. This eventually caused concern and my mother took me to the hospital. At first, I thought my mother was trying to see if I was lying. Which, she probably was because my mother knew I was afraid of hospitals. My mother knew I was petrified of needles and doctors, which is why I thought she was using this as strategy. In response, I used my own strategy and agreed to go. Of course, this surprised and concerned my mother
I spent six months in and out of hospitals and doctor visits. I underwent painful procedures such as a spinal tap, and underwent tests like an upper G.I. series, and although the Demerol fogged my memory, they even went down my throat with a camera at the end of a tube. Although I was not physically sick; this was a result of my emotional symptoms.
As a kid, the word “They” meant everything to me. The word “They” meant the crowd and to me, the crowd determined how the world turns. Therefore, I tried to find an image, which I could hide behind and protect myself from social prosecution. Yes, I was bullied. This is why I chose an image that could protect me. I was not tough by any means and I could not fight very well. Instead, I acted out. I acted crazy. I exploded in classrooms and eventually found myself in places that ranged from detention, in-school suspension, home suspension, to the eventual and inevitable expulsion. This was a result of my behavior but in all honesty, I never wanted any of this. No, this was my reaction. This was the voice I could never speak. This is why I acted out —it’s because I could never find my place.
I remember reading in the classroom. This would start with one student reading a paragraph, then another student would read, and while this happened, I tried to count heads to see which paragraph was mine. I hoped and prayed the paragraph would be quick and simple. I did not like to read out loud because I read poorly and often stuttered when trying to pronounce the words.
I spent so much time trying to read the paragraph before it was my turn, but because I couldn’t read well; I was distracted by the other readers in the classroom. Then I would lose my place and by the time it was my turn to read, I could never seem to find my place. As far as an analogy goes; this is how I felt in and out of the classroom. I just couldn’t ever seem to find my place
I was uncomfortably small, weak, and uncoordinated. Therefore, I could not fit in with the athletes. I was not very strong nor could I fight very well, so I couldn’t sit comfortably with the tough kids. I was not smart; therefore, I did not feel comfortable with the smart kids —and of all things, the last thing I wanted to be seen as was a nerd or a geek.
All I wanted to do was find my place and feel comfortable. I wanted to have friends—and I mean real friends too, like the kind you keep in touch with and tell your children about. I would have rather been on the right side of the cafeteria but there was no place for me there. In fact, there wasn’t much for me on the left side either. But sitting somewhere, even if this meant sitting with the wrong people and doing the wrong things —this was better than sitting with no one in the middle, feeling faceless, unnoticed, and sadly unmentionable.
This is when I learned about drug use. This is when I learned about drinking and this is where I learned about what happens when I drink. I learned how this affected me and how this impacted my so-called reputation. The story from this point onward takes an unfortunate turn but this is a story for another time.
I am older now. Classes are different and so are the teachers. Fortunately, schools have advanced quite a bit since my time. But, the truth is the identity struggle is still very real. Life at any age is about finding one’s self. It is hard enough to grow up and learn—let alone, grow up, learn, and try to find your own identity.
Feelings are timeless. I know this because I speak in schools. I am a certified professional life coach. I am a sober coach and a recovery coach as well as a public speaker. Sober for 27 years, it is interesting when I speak with students and tell them about the way things were back in my day. They laugh sometimes because of the lack of technology; however, when it comes to emotion and when it comes to the honesty of who I was and how I felt, although decades have passed since that time, I notice the students nodding in agreement as I tell my story.
I am currently a recovery specialist for an Opioid Overdose Recovery Program in Northern New Jersey. This means if I am on call and an overdose comes to one of the hospitals I serve, I arrive at the emergency room and sit bedside with the patient to discuss options of treatment and lend them future support instead of sending them back out to the addiction, which almost killed them. I see the ages range from younger to older. I see all kinds of people and of all things I notice; I realize there is no common face. There is only a common problem.
As a plan of interaction, I have encountered people that range from rich to poor and from different ethnic backgrounds; however, regardless to where they are from or whether they were popular in school or they were virtually faceless in high school, the emotional similarities are consistent throughout my interviews.
I often wonder what could have happened if I had some that understood this when I was younger. What if I was able to get to the problem before the problem got to me? What changes could I offer in a classroom that would create support and teach lessons of social, personal, and emotional wellness?
There needs to be a change in the dynamic of how we treat and teach our children. There needs to be a different connection with awareness and wellness.
There is a problem in our country. They call this an epidemic. There are people dying in tragic numbers on a daily basis. Although the paths towards addiction may differ, the emotions and the symptoms are generally the same.
Through my interactions while speaking as a life coach in classrooms and auditoriums, I interact with students who share similar stories and feelings, which is why I think we need to focus on wellness and not just addiction specifically. I think we need to treat the problems instead of the symptoms. I think we need to empower our children and acknowledge their emotions, understand their feelings, and guide them towards a goal-based strategy towards living a productive lifestyle.
If we are to fight this battle, then it only makes sense to arm ourselves properly. We need to help promote support and create change in education. This does not mean that I am suggesting more prevention and intervention classes. Instead, I recommend more empowerment and wellness classes to be incorporated with our children’s curriculum at school.
God knows, I could have used more programs like this when I was a student. Perhaps if there were more programs like this, maybe the list of my friends that died wouldn’t be as long.
Below is a link to E.L.C. New Jersey
“Because we know it takes a village!”