My daughters and I nervously passed between two huge concrete lions flanking the entrance, and a door opened magically before us.
“Welcome to Julia Landon College Preparatory!” said the eighth grader holding the door, smartly clad in khaki shorts, a navy blue polo emblazoned with the school logo, and a full set of shining braces.
It was middle school orientation day, and having just moved to Jacksonville, Florida, we had no clue how to negotiate the vast halls and complex social hierarchy of this new institution.
With every move, our military family has adapted to new surroundings, but this time we were a bit anxious. The girls had been accepted into a top notch magnet school, and while I was grateful for this stroke of dumb luck, I was also a bit worried that I might meet up with some pretentious personalities.
Being from humble roots, I don’t deal well with snooty people.
Besides, middle school parents are a separate and distinct breed. Unlike elementary school children who are a blank canvas, and high school kids whose personalities are pretty much set, middle school children are still forming their individual aptitudes and character traits. Middle school parents still believe that, with their guidance, their children will be neurosurgeons and professional athletes.
At this stage in the game, middle school parents are still living the dream, and they carry themselves as if their children are the cream of the crop.
I had a sneaking suspicion that the parents at Julia Landon College Preparatory Middle School might have cornered the market on elitist attitudes, so I decided to beat them at their own game.
I knew I needed to walk into that school wearing something that would convey the message, “Yea, I’m new, intelligent, interesting, and I have no time for you.”
So, I strategically paired a trendy shirt dress and sandals with a silver pendant necklace on a leather cord. I carried one of those huge tote bags with the name of a European city stamped all over it. Mine read “Stuttgart.”
I envisioned another mom asking, “Ooo, cool necklace . . . where’d you get it?” and I’d have to tell how I bought the pendant from a street market in Rome after a delicious lunch of risotto and fried artichokes in a Trastevere café. I’d have that far-away look in my eye that says, “I’ve got more culture in my upturned pinkie than you’ll get from a case of Yoplait.”
Then someone else might notice my Stuttgart bag and inquire as to whether I have “visited”Germany. I’d have to hide my smirk as I explain, “Why, no, actually we lived in Stuttgart for the last three years.” Again, with that far-away look in my eyes.
That’ll show ‘em, I thought, as we crossed the threshold into the school.
We were greeted by more khaki clad kids, each one more polite and helpful than the last, “yes ma’am” rolling off their tongues without the slightest effort.
I grumbled under my breath at their superiority. I had been trying to get my own children to use that simple phrase for years, but even under extreme duress, I had only been able to elicit a reluctant muttering that sounded more like “S’pam.” Apparently, my kids would rather shove Popsicle sticks under their toenails than subordinate themselves in such a humiliating way. Preferring to not be referred to as repulsive canned meat product, I gave up the fight and accepted the garden variety “Yes, Mom,” usually accompanied by plenty of eye rolling.
We followed the sea of people headed to several stations set up for getting locker assignments, student ID photos, PTA memberships, textbooks, and PE uniforms. The crowd looked like a giant preppy wave of madras plaid, nautical stripes, tanned limbs, sun bleached hair and white teeth. Parents seemed to recognize each other, chatting as the tide swept forward.
In a pathetic ploy for attention, I would announce at each station that “We are new here,” but no one seemed to care all that much. They were just as pleasant as eating a slice of summer peach pie on a porch swing. But I wasn’t about to let these sweet-tea swilling snobs get the best of me.
In a last ditch effort to get the upper hand, I announced to the silver-haired guidance counselor, “Well, we are new because WE JUST MOVED HERE AFTER LIVING IN EUROPE,” hoping the surrounding hoard would overhear and drop to their knees to beg for my friendship. But no one batted an eye.
In her slow-cooked southern drawl, the guidance counselor responded, “Well, I do declare, you have come a long way! Welcome, we are so happy to have you here. Now, how may I help you?”
Contritely, I handed the sweet woman my daughters’ health records and thanked her for her assistance. I couldn’t deny it any more. The people at this new school weren’t snooty nor elitist. I didn’t need to beat them at their own game because they weren’t playing one. This was simply a good school with good people in it. With a sigh of relief, I finally let down my guard and resolved to just be real.
As I walked back out the door and between the concrete lions, I remembered the advice I had given my own girls that very morning: “Don’t be afraid, just be yourself. In time, you will make lots of new friends and you’ll fit right in.”