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I am writing this for somebody I know who is having difficulty at school. Someone who is finding social time hard. I was thinking back to when I was fourteen, and some excruciatingly painful and rejecting experiences I had. I was good at joining lots of things, (something that is still true!), and sometimes – not always, but sometimes – I thought I was doing okay, getting along with people, being part of things and joining in. However there are a couple of experiences coming to mind right now, which were very difficult for me at the time.

They are connected experiences, they are to do with a youth club I went to, near to where I lived, and near the secondary modern school, which was a distance from the grammar school which I attended. So these were people I saw socially, but did not, in the main, attend school with. Grammar schools were more academic than secondary modern ones and on paper anyway, I would be brighter than those other young people at the youth club.

The youth club offered a range of activities, one of which was sailing. One Saturday I got myself to the Marine Lake where the sailing was due to take place, at the right time, maybe a little late. I could see the boat with the youth club leader and some youth club members in it. I stood at the railing, maybe I waved, maybe not. They were doing a lot of zigzagging up and down the lake in the wind. I waited 20 minutes, and when they were still nowhere near me, I gave up and went home.

I felt deflated, small, crying inside, in huge and searing pain which I kept trying to dampen down. That I had not been seen, or, that (worse), I had been seen, and that somehow, as I had somehow literally “missed the boat”, no one needed to or was obliged to interact with me any more. So I was either not seen, or seen and it was okay to ignore me. The experience was massively upsetting, and really knocked my confidence about being a part of things. I was just emerging as a teenage girl too, and to be not noticed by boys was also humiliating. And it’s not a coincidence that I was there on my own, trying to join in. Trying to join in things on my own, was very much how it was in my life at that time.

Sometime later, back at the youth club, during the evening session, the youth club leader said to me that he had seen me, but that he had been unable to get to me in time, and I should have waited longer. What a difference some form of acknowledgement, or signal from him from the boat would have made. Also what a difference, it would have made had I been waiting at the railings with a friend.

The second incident was different, with a group of girls and I can still remember it as a real shock. I used to go to the youth club, the same one, once a week in the evening either with some girls or call in on some girls on the way. As I said, they were at the secondary modern school, a different school from my one. I can’t really remember how I got to know them in the first place, probably it was the swimming club, where my mum was the treasurer.

I had thought I was okay, it wasn’t the best time ever from my point of view, but at least I was there and joining in. One evening the girls said to me, they’d been thinking, and “Wouldn’t it be better if you went to the youth club with your friends.” I had thought they were my friends. I had thought I was a part of things. I had thought I was welcome, maybe even liked. But I wasn’t wanted, and even although those girls were relatively polite and relatively tactful, the message I took away from it was clear. I wasn’t wanted. Or only if I turned up with my “own friends”. I can’t remember what I  did, although I know I stopped going, or went a few more times on my own, and had no one to join in with, so stopped going. I felt very unhappy indeed, isolated and rejected.

I don’t have any happy or immediate answers for this. No magic wands I am afraid.  Sometime after these incidents, I made friends with some girls at my own school, after getting very upset one day, crying, and showing my feelings to one of them. This was a strange, but different way of starting a friendship and was the beginning of something that could be deepened. It was the beginning of something really good to me and those girls became my friends for a very long time.

I think I also went and find myself a home at the Elim Pentecostal church, because they didn’t do any of this deeply painful, rejecting behaviour to me. Okay it was very strange in its own way, and it was like finding a ready-made set of beliefs and values to hang my hat on, but, hey, it gave me certainty in those relationships and it was better than not being in the middle of something, not being a part of something, and not being joined in.

In those years, I remember so clearly feeling different, not knowing how to join in, and never being sure of my acceptability. I felt very vulnerable, as someone I thought was a friend, could turn out to be not a friend, and it was if I had no forewarning.

I don’t know what all the steps are, what all the answers are, or anything at all really. My hunches are that some of this has to do with skills, knowing how to engage with people initially, and knowing how to deepen friendships that can then stand the test of time.

Another piece is probably feeling really secure or at home, with those who do know you really well, the best of you and the worst of you, and love you and accept you unconditionally at all times. As a child myself, I don’t think I really had that, or at best got mixed messages, although I try to offer it to my husband and children.

The last hunch is probably self-acceptance. I see myself as a fairly quirky person, unusual and intelligent, always with a different perspective on something and trying something new. Perhaps it was when I became able to handle those things about myself, that other people were either able to handle them too, and see them as attractive or at least neutral, but not a negative or a threatening thing to them.

Perhaps the last little tiny message of hope is that I don’t feel those feelings quite like that any more. That’s not to say I never feel rejected, because I do, for work or jobs. As does everybody I imagine. But I do know that I have a network of friends who I like to spend time with and who I believe, like to spend time with me. People I have in-depth conversations with, and where I am not afraid to reveal myself. And there have been friends, even now, who have dropped the relationship with me, and don’t give a reason. But there are many, many more, where I can ask if there is a problem, and listen and talk, until the friendship is renewed or deepened, and not lost.

My challenges today remain some of the ancient and well trodden ones of “who am I and what do I want”, but nowadays, most of the time, I do know that I have friends. Little by little, bit by bit, it does get better.

Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results

One Comment

  • Martin says:

    The feeling of the boat going without me seems quite a common one for teenagers and was a big part of my early experience. That does not make it any less painful.

    This was even true at University for me with two exceptions, the Anglican Chaplaincy and the Photographic Society. The first we would expect it of, since the one defining thing about Anglicanism is inclusiveness. Photographers are by nature loners who get together to share their results (not experiences) and somehow re validate their individualism.

    I think that the tacit acceptance of the need for these two qualities, followed by much, much later the recognition of them, has been a lifeline for me.

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