I went to high school with a great guy named Ray, a person for whom I had great respect—maybe even a touch of envy. Ray wore a black leather jacket and a heavy chain that kept his wallet attached to his hip. He listened to heavy metal music and smoked cigarettes, and was also a star shortstop and leadoff hitter on the baseball team. He had a friendly smile, and seemed to know everyone.
He moved effortlessly in and out of various social circles. He would eat lunch with the burnouts, but was just as popular among the jocks. The cheerleaders liked him, the nerds liked him, and the street hockey punks liked him. The guy was authentic, at ease wherever he went.
I remember this so vividly because it was so rare. I spent four years as a student in high school, then most of my adult life working in high schools. For the most part, I’ve observed kids working furiously trying to fit in, trying to find a social group where they can belong, where they can just relax and be themselves. And it’s really hard to do.
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I’m reading Brene Brown’s fascinating book, The Gifts of Imperfection. Here’s a passage that made me put the book down and think.
“Most of us use the terms fitting in and belonging interchangeably, and like many of you, I’m really good at fitting in. We know exactly how to hustle for approval and acceptance. We know what to wear, what to talk about, how to make people happy, what not to mention—we know how to chameleon our way through the day.
“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
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Here’s what I’ve observed about school: it doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t exist to honor the uniqueness of you; by its design, it can’t honor the uniqueness of you. It is what it is, and if you want to plug in to what school has to offer, great. But it’s not going to plug in to you. That makes it an emotionally unsafe place to be.
Kids sense that school is not designed to honor their individuality, so most of them—there are some like Ray who are able to transcend this game—go about the business putting on the mask that will gain them social acceptance from their peers, their teachers, and their parents (many of whom may be wearing masks of their own).
They’re trying to fit in, because belonging is so hard to do.
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