Today is a pretty big day in our house. For starters, we are slowly emerging from the igloo of tissue boxes we’ve built around us over the past week or so. I am optimistic that all of Team Gray will be back to work, school, kindy, swimming lessons and playdates come Monday, leaving behind the relentless fighting over the iPad and requests for pawpaw application to red-raw nostrils (and that’s just my husband). The second reason for celebration is that my daughter is about to attend a birthday party for a school friend: the first party to which she has been invited independent of my friendship with the mother, or because the whole class is going. She has made a new friend, completely on her own merits, and is one of the exclusive gang gathering at a local play centre to break bread (or chicken nuggets, as the case may be).
You could be forgiven for accusing me of taking this a little too seriously; after all, most kids have been to more parties than Prince Harry by the time they hit school. But I see this invitation as symbolic of several significant developments:
- She is not ‘that child’ in the playground who has no friends.
- She is happy enough at school to make friends, and thus hopefully enjoying the school experience more generally.
- We’ve made the right choice of school (for her, for now) after much deliberation and mind-changing last year.
I am excited to see Miss 5 starting out on the journey of developing school friendships. They will be some of the most enjoyable, loving, powerful, frustrating, educational friendships of her life. Much like our work colleagues as adults, our children’s school friends will teach them tolerance, negotiation, compromise, kindness and the fact that not everyone will like you all of the time.
When I think about my school friends, there are moments so vivid they seem to have been forced upon me with a branding iron. Others incidents are a hazy, pixelated mess. The clearest ones are surely those that have most influenced the person I am today; the ones to which, in hindsight, I attach values, emotions and learning experiences, although they may not have seemed terribly important at the time. For example…
Grade 2 – Joy: My first sleep-over at a friend’s house was memorable for her generosity. I was allowed to sleep in the top bunk. I was allowed to be Barbie, not Ken, and drive the campervan to our holiday destination near the guinea pigs’ cage in her backyard. I was allowed to choose between roast potatoes and mashed potatoes for dinner, even though my friend always preferred mashed. I learned that a few small compromises go a long way towards making someone feel happy in your company.
Grade 4 – Injustice: I remember sitting cross-legged and straight-backed on the carpet for Catholic school mass. Having just filed back to our places from the communion queue, I noticed my friend fiddling with a squishy white blob. Declaring the taste of the holy wafer disgusting, she hid the ‘body of Christ’ in her sock for disposal at a later opportunity. I giggled. We were both punished for this act of juvenile sacrilege. I learned that showing solidarity with a friend can strengthen that friendship, but may not always win the favour of outsiders.
Grade 6 – Encouragement: I had a most progressive and indulgent teacher in Grade 6 who allowed me to use class time to write elaborate works of theatre and encourage my class mates to get their thespian on. Lunch break rehearsals were run with the precision and enthusiasm of the Royal Shakespeare Company, though with fewer costumes, no actual stage and more breaks for tuckshop. I learned that friends will support you in your endeavours, especially if it gets them out of maths. I also learned to love writing.
Grade 8 – Belonging: There was a tradition at my first high school (I attended a few) of egging people on their birthdays. There was a particular gang of kids who by some strange criteria had been deemed ‘cool’; it was they who held the power to decide who did or didn’t get smeared in disgusting goo in celebration of their big day. My Grade 7 birthday had come and gone without incident. I comforted myself with good marks and the security of closer friends. The next year, however, I wore my shampoo of sloppy, gluey, flour, egg and milk like a badge of honour knowing I had finally arrived. I learned that the cool kids are almost never actually having as much fun as you think they are.
Grade 11 – Body image: A series of ‘trust exercises’ were devised to help us bond with friends at school camp. I was required to jump into the arms of the boy on whom I had a not insignificant crush at the time. This was a strange activity, given our teachers spent most of their energies stopping boys and girls from touching each other, but also because it showed a complete and utter lack of comprehension of teenage discomfort with their physical selves. I tried to think light-as-a-feather thoughts. “That was easy!” my partner lied. I learned that it is just as important for teenage boys to appear strong as it is for teenage girls to have no body mass to speak of. I wish I’d learned that boys will probably like you more if you like yourself.
The old school yard is in my distant past now, but I carry with me vivid snapshots of people and conversations from those years. It was, after all, 13 years of travelling through life with people you see every day: you are privy to the soap opera of their families, their emerging talents, successes and disappointments. Whether you end up being BFFs or never seeing each other again, school yard friendships are momentous character development tools. So, I reserve my right to feel a little warm glow as we wrap the pink party paper around some Littlest Pet Shop goodies for today’s birthday girl.