The worst part of high school was lunch. It wasn’t just the food, even though everyone else was eating pizza and milkshakes, while I had a Weight Watcher’s style 1 tsp of peanut butter on wallpaper paste diet bread sandwich (which was invariably soggy and vile by lunch, anyway) Fat Lunch. I could have lived with the Fat Lunch. But I had to find a place to sit.
I remember standing there, lunch bag in hand, surveying the lunchroom. I had to pick a table too far from the bullies to get at me, and far from the Neighbor Boy who threw orange peels in my hair. (I did catch Neighbor Boy lounging around in the lilac bushes under my bedroom window a few times, so who knows what the orange peels were about.) I had a loose group of friends to sit with, but I found that as we grew older our interests were diverging and I struggled to find a line of conversation at times. Sometimes I sat alone, writing in my notebook, hoping to give off a “See, I’m sooo busy working on Very Important Things, I have to sit here. By Choice.” vibe. I joined clubs that worked over lunch simply so I’d have someplace to be. Mostly I just wanted to go home.
When I graduated from high school, I walked out after the ceremony, heaving a deep sigh of relief, and ran to my car. It was over. I was free, and nothing ever felt better. All I wanted was to go to college and start over, and I never had to face the lunchroom, the gym or the locker rooms ever again.
What I didn’t understand is that it never lets go. I noticed this with The Bus Moms. I’m new in the neighborhood. Walking M and Baby A to the bus in the mornings, I was suddenly in that lunchroom all over again. There was a tight cluster of moms gathered in a circle, chatting. A few chatted in pairs. There were a couple on the far outside, leaning against trees, playing with their I-phones doing Very Important Things Alone by Choice. M ran off to chase her friends, and I stood on the sidewalk, debating. Do I approach? Do I stand here and play with my phone? Which group do I approach? Really, I just wanted to go home. Ultimately, I chose the Play with Cute Baby until Other Adult Approaches option.
In my mind I was aggravated. I was an adult, damn it, and I shouldn’t have to be going through this anymore! I should be old enough and mature enough to not care, to just walk up and chat and be unafraid. But I’m not. I’m better, for sure, but when I’m in a new social situation, I still have shades of that girl with the soggy sandwich and the orange peels in her hair.
I did eventually make friends with a couple of neighbors, one who’s M’s friend’s mom and likes to paint her nails with sparkly blue polish like me, and a mom with five kids who rides her son’s razor scooter home through the park every day, laughing. (Keep being awesome, Scooter Mom!) M fortunately has absolutely no fear of other children and makes friends very easily, so I’m meeting the parents through her.
I try and push that high school girl back, and most days I succeed. But no matter how hard I try to push her away, she’s still there, nibbling at my core, worried that she won’t be liked, won’t sit in the right place or be the right kind of person, whatever that might be. I know I shouldn’t care. But I do. I wonder, sometimes, if the parents under the trees are pushing away a ghost, too.