Fifth Grade and the Urgency of Community

When I was a kid, my family used to go to family camp every summer. The year I was in fifth grade, the camp director had each family stand up in front of everyone and introduce themselves, saying one thing about each family member. I listened in excited anticipation about what Daddy would say about me. He introduced himself and my mama, and then he started introducing us kids, going on and on about how talented my sisters were.

What would he say about me? Would he tell everyone what an amazing juggler I had become that year? Maybe he would mention how incredibly smart I was and how I was inevitably bound to cure cancer someday or at least cash in on my Toesy Hose invention (pantyhose with toes, so you could have a “tan” even with sandals!). Or perhaps he would just simply say that out of us five kids, I was the most lovable and his very favorite.

This is what Daddy said: “Blythe is 11 years old and always notices and befriends the unlovable.”

What. The. Hector.

What did that even mean? I fought back tears of confusion. I didn’t understand why Daddy hadn’t mentioned my Shirley Temple curls or that I had landed the lead in the class play. In my disappointment, I decided not to ask him for clarification. Instead, like a typical tween, I withdrew in charming broodiness.

Eventually, I came to understand what he meant; Daddy was in the military and we moved a lot. I was a seriously shy introvert (still am…), yet I still always made friends—by looking for and engaging the unlovable. And it’s true. First day in a new school and I was on the lookout for the misfit kid that everyone else teased or who just didn’t fit in, that kid no one bothered with or who didn’t know how to make friends. I think maybe my father saw something virtuous that wasn’t there, though: I wasn’t reaching out to those kids for their sakes—I was reaching out to them for my own sake.

As a little girl moving around so much (I went to five different elementary schools), I understood from an early age that there is an urgency to friendship. I wanted friends to play with and had figured out that I actually needed friends—those occasional seasons of friendlessness were almost too much to bear for little me. I needed a place to belong, kids to know me, kids to accept me, kids to stand up for me. And I wanted to be that kid for other children, too. I wanted the camaraderie of standing up to a bully, arms linked with a friend or two, bonding through mutual fear, adrenaline, and fighting for kid justice.

When I started at a new school, I didn’t know how to fit in, what the cool trends were there. I never started off with an edge—I always felt behind on slang (turns out Megan B wasn’t calling me “dude,” but just using it as an interjection), music (Brad and Jeremy at the bus stop hadn’t written “Don’t worry, be happy” like they told me they had), and styles (no, a rainbow did not throw up on my sweater; I clearly would have fit right in with DJ and Stephanie Tanner).

Sometimes a friendly kid would reach out to me and invite me to be a part of their circle, but most often than not, I had to find my own friends. I knew that if I chose the prettiest girl in class or the most athletic boy or the class clown, it would take a long time to convince them I was worth being friends with. But I didn’t have time to spare, and besides, what if they were never convinced? No, I was in too much of a hurry to pursue the obvious choice. Even as a child, I understood the urgency to finding and building community.

By fifth grade, I was an expert—I befriended a Vietnamese girl who could barely speak English, and we quickly welcomed into our tiny circle a boy so poor he wore the same maroon corduroy leisure suit (yes, you read that right) every day, a boy so smart that he struggled to have conversations about ordinary things, and a boy so shy he couldn’t answer questions in class. We were the Breakfast Club of Ms. J’s class; we had each other’s backs and celebrated our differences and overlooked offenses. We were a little community, happy to include others as long as they didn’t make fun of anyone in our group.

Of all my childhood years, fifth grade was my favorite. It was the year I felt most known, most accepted, most included, most loved. I think in a way, I’ve been trying to re-create that year ever since. No matter how old I get, I still keep looking for that person who is metaphorically sitting alone at the lunch table or without a partner in gym class. Experience has taught me that the people who don’t fit in with the mainstream are the most interesting, the most fun, the most likely to be willing to dive into friendship.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me someone had referred to me as being “popular” and in “the cool crowd.” After I choked on my coffee, I shook my head in disbelief. No one has ever accused me of being cool or popular. Just ask my seventh grade classmates who cringed when I showed up for picture day wearing a homemade jumper sewn out of fabric designed to look like a flour sack. (We had just moved from D.C. to Nebraska—I thought all the kids would be wearing flour sack…)

In fact, my feelings were hurt a little bit. Or maybe just my ego. I have made it one of my life’s goals to pursue people on the fringe. The people who are different and can’t slash don’t care to make the changes to fit in with the mainstream, the people who understand rejection, the people who also know about the urgency of community. What did I do to communicate to someone that I was cool or popular? And also, popular with whom? I’m pretty sure that as a rule, people who use the word “whom” are excluded from popularity!

I suppose at the end of the day, it’s no matter. I wish I could say that I have a heart for the unlovable because God has a heart for the unlovable. That I don’t just think the people society often rejects are actually the cool kids in disguise and that I am the one benefitting by reaching out to them. That I have learned from his love for the underdog, the prostitutes and shepherd boys, the social outcasts and sinners, the broken and weak. But maybe his heart for me—that awkward little girl who had nothing to offer new friends but open hands—has shown me that it’s worth looking for the oddball because maybe what you’ll find is a friend.

Do you feel the urgency of community? Are you eager for a friend who shares that feeling? Is there someone in your life whom you suspect wants the same intimacy in friendship you want? What are ways you could pursue them? Is there someone on the fringes who would be blessed by an invitation to coffee with you? Who can you pursue today?