As a freshman in high school, you never know if you’re going to fit in anywhere, make friends, find a place for yourself. In my high school, the school district was so small that there was only one middle school that fed into the high school, and only one elementary school into the middle school. So, for better or for worse, the people in your class were the people you’d grown up with since kindergarten, unless someone moved into or out of the district.
There are still, however, plenty of new faces to encounter upon reaching 9th grade. You find yourself thrown into the same hallways as the upperclassmen. No longer are you separated into your little classes in your own section of the building with only those of your grade level. Lunch, in particular, can be a harrowing ordeal wherein a large portion of your classmates are not present as they are in a different lunch time slot, and upperclassmen surround you.
My first day lunch period was difficult. It wasn’t that I was unpopular or disliked; I was simply quiet and a little shy about making new friends. All of my pre-existing friends, with whom I had enjoyed sitting with at lunch the past three years in middle school, were in other lunch periods this year, and the vague acquaintances I saw sitting at the tables that day did not seem especially welcoming. I sat quietly, miserably, at a table with one such acquaintance while he and his friends ignored me. They weren’t unkind, but they were immature teenage boys. They talked and joked loudly amongst themselves, trying get as much attention from the group as possible. They’d been friends since elementary school and were content to keep their circle just the way it was. Well, I thought, at least I wasn’t sitting alone. I didn’t want to suffer the shame of sitting all by myself like some sort of radioactive island that nobody wanted to approach. Just imagining it made my skin prickle as if stared at by the whole room like a fish in a bowl or a sculpture on display. Look at the weirdo with no friends, eating lunch all alone. Ignored is better than ostracized.
That afternoon in my first geometry class, my teacher asked who wasn’t already enrolled in a fall sport. I raised my hand. I was only one of two people to do so. The teacher, Mr. LeBaron, looked at both of us before pointing a finger at me.
“You look like a runner,” he said. He wasn’t wrong; I had done soccer and track in middle school, but I was afraid of competing in anything at the high school level. “I need more people on my cross country team,” he continued, “Come to practice after school tomorrow and try it out.” He was the coach of the girls’ cross country team, and very dedicated to that role. Probably much more so than to teaching. I would later discover that he was even more devoted to girls’ track in the spring than cross country in the fall, because I did go to that first cross country practice after school the next day.
To my surprise, I did well. Although many of the other runners had been practicing for two weeks already, I was in the middle of the group during the timed mile. Even more to my surprise, the other athletes weren’t stuck-up or clique-y. They were a small group of very friendly, welcoming people. Both boys and girls, from 7th to 12th grade, practiced together because cross country had so few people in it. The middle-schoolers, 7th and 8th graders, were on the modified team, while everyone else was varsity. There weren’t try-outs, and even the couple of people who were terrible at running were welcomed by the group. Since cross country is scored by your top five runners, it doesn’t matter how slow your slowest are if they aren’t in the top five. Unlike sports with only a limited number of players on the field, everyone could compete in cross country races. Well, except the Sectional and State Championships that took only seven; five to score and two spares.
Despite having two weeks of practicing together this season and forming friendships in previous seasons as well, the team readily accepted a new member to their ranks. It wasn’t long before we were talking, laughing, joking, and creating inside jokes as we jogged and stretched. That’s how the cross country kids were; like family. Only about 25 people were in the sport at my school, including all grades and both sexes.
The next day at lunch, two of the cross country members from 11th grade saw me and waved me over. With a flood of relief, and a touch of trepidation, I squeezed into a place at their table. They introduced me to their friends and included me in their conversation. Knowing Logan and Stephanie from cross country led me to meeting Mikey, Brett, Kenlin, David, and Oddessy. This time I wasn’t a lonely hanger-on of a group that barely noticed me, and I wasn’t an uncharted island in the middle of a social sea.
As runners, we were a pack of wolves. Some athletes were distinctly better than others, but we needed everyone to run their best in order to score well at meets. Somehow, being ranked one through seven didn’t inspire animosity. Maybe it’s in knowing exactly how much better the next better person is than you. You have a very clear goal to reach for, and can also see where the competitors from other schools tend to rank. In soccer or football or baseball you can guess at who’s better based on goals or runs or touchdowns, but those sports have different roles to play. Here, we all just ran.
After meets, on the bus ride home, someone would start playing music from their iPod. It usually started the same way, and everyone would jump in singing: “Debbie just hit the wall! She never had it all! …” I don’t know why they chose 1985, except perhaps that it was fun to sing. I laughed, singing along once I knew the words.
Honestly, music never meant much to me. I just don’t have a musical brain. Most songs don’t inspire any feelings in me except that some are annoying and some aren’t, but that silly Bowling For Soup song about a washed-up mom who wanted to be a hit star of the 80’s reminds me of my cross country family. We sang together after races. We sometimes sang while we ran in practice. We suffered together under the hot September sun while we covered miles each day, and we suffered together in the bitter November cold at the end of an exhausting season. And I never had to eat lunch alone again.