Everyone wants to be accepted by their peers, but belonging doesn’t come as easily for some as for others. For the elementary school student, the first day of school brings much excitement, but it also comes with new challenges that reach beyond learning contractions and double-digit addition. Social nuances abound and add new dimensions to the ever-changing social environment, especially for children who live with additional physical or cognitive challenges.
Even at the age of six, I knew everyone needed a friend. One child in my class was set apart from our other energetic classmates by an awkward gait and irregular speech patterns. This little girl was not well-accepted or included by the other children. Beyond that, she was intentionally excluded from the play of those whose boundless energy and schoolgirl giggles drew everyone to their presence. She noticeably stood alone, and I couldn’t tell if she knew she was being left out or was merely unaware of the activity happening around her.
Since I can remember, I’ve had a heart for children living with additional challenges, and find they are as drawn to me as I am to them. I was keenly aware of how alone this little girl was, so that day was transformed into the beginning of a beautiful friendship circle of two. Communication was difficult for my new friend, but I patiently waited as she worked to express herself. Often during class, words didn’t come to her. Her frustration would send her bolting from her desk to the back of the classroom, where she would sit on the floor, hiding underneath her jacket.
The teacher calmly tried to soothe her the first time this happened, but my friend became even more upset and guarded herself more tightly. Every face in the classroom was turned in her direction, and at that moment I could feel the sting of shame she must have felt. I felt her pain and isolation and wanted to rescue her from the insensitive stares and heartless snickering. The next time she burst from her desk to hide, I was ready. I raised my hand and asked if I could go and be with her.
I don’t know what I said or if I spoke to her at all.
What I do recall is the two of us holding hands as I guided her back to her seat. From that day forward, all the teacher had to do was look at me when classroom challenges seemed too great for her. I would slip from my desk and go to my friend’s side, where she would lift her jacket, inviting me into her place of safety.
There’s more to this story.
My first day at Williams Elementary remains a vivid memory. I had started school a year early, which meant I was a six-year-old second-grader in a new school. I didn’t know anyone there but my older brother, who was ahead by two grades. Though I had not yet met my classmates, I was excited to make new friends. My mother had encouraged me to courageously approach other children and simply ask if I could play.
Mid-morning, the recess bell rang, the door flung open, and children spilled from our classroom onto the school lawn. At the edge of the playground, several of my classmates gathered, holding hands and laughing together. I bravely walked up to them with confident assurance and asked the all-important question, “Can I play?” I was infused with hope, unprepared for the answer I received from the girl who, clearly, was in charge. She abruptly turned to me and shouted, “No!” The sinking feeling of rejection I felt lingers even now. I hadn’t expected refusal, and my heart fell from the exhilaration of childhood expectation to the place where shattered pieces land.
Had I not turned away in sadness at that very moment, I might have missed the little girl who stood alone near the classroom door. No one was holding her hand or laughing with her, and no one had chosen her as a friend on that first day of school, either. She stood just as alone as I found myself, and when I asked if she wanted to play, she didn’t say no. Instead, she accepted me, newbie status and all. We both needed to belong.
She chose to be friends with this outsider, with my own unique challenges, welcoming me into her private world and giving me the friendship my young heart so greatly desired.
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
Wendy Lipham lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast where she has taught interview and communication skills for over twenty years. Having heard God’s call to work with young women who have experienced sexual violence and abuse, she is further inspired by the growth of her “Beautifully Broken” story group. She enjoys writing, drawing, and needlepoint. Most of all, she loves living life beside her husband and hearing the laughter of their seven grandchildren.