Last week, my niece Josie started sixth grade.
As expected, I struggled to believe the day was upon us at all. When I hugged her goodbye and wished her good luck after my family and I had dinner together on Monday, I had a fleeting image of the days when I would swing her into my arms and twirl her around, every hello and goodbye a dance of aerial exuberance. I can no longer pick her up and sometimes the only greeting I get is a distracted lift of the palm, the only farewell a few, hasty words tossed over her shoulder as she makes her way to the door.
But, to me, she is still adorable, enchanting even with her goofy antics and wisecracks and easily excitable nature, though I don’t always agree with some of the ways she’s negotiating these self-defining tween years. As sixth grade loomed, it was with a mixture of worry, awe and pride that I listened to her talk about her classes and the team she’d been assigned, her locker combination and the “cool” skirt she couldn’t wait to wear on the first day. When she brought up the friend who was no longer her friend, launching into a lengthy and sometimes baffling explanation of the sequence of events that had led to this, I thought, “Oh, my, here we go ….” Welcome to those confusing and challenging middle-school years.
On Tuesday, when Josie’s mom texted me a photo of her waiting at the bus stop, I cried. She looked so grown up. How had my little lovebug morphed into this girl, bright and funky and beaming with her Vera Bradley backpack and coffee mug in her hand?
Staring at her image, I couldn’t help thinking back to my own first day of sixth grade, which began my schooling in this country. I was 10 and had only been in the U.S. for about a month, my dad having moved my family here from St. Lucia for a job with an American company he’d been working with in the Caribbean. My brother, who was 8, would be in elementary school. After years of attending the same schools together, we were going our separate ways. I’m sure I must have been nervous, but when I look back, I remember only excitement and an immense curiosity. I was entering a new world vastly different from the one I’d left behind, but somehow I felt ready.
It may not have boded well that the outfit I wore was homemade, a brown skirt and checkered blouse lovingly sewn by my grandmother before I’d left St. Lucia. I had ribbons in my hair and my socks stopped just below my knees. When the bus pulled up to our driveway, where I waited with three other kids, my parents were both there, my dad with a camera. He wanted to ride the bus with me all the way to the school. The driver, a lanky, affable man named Steve, politely declined, assuring him I would be fine, and off I went.
People have often asked me what it was like to come to this country from a small island at such a young age. Did I experience culture shock? Was it hard to adapt? Did I struggle to fit in? Moving to Pennsylvania, to a mostly white suburban town, after growing up in the Caribbean, was a big change.
We were far from the ever-ready embrace of our large, extended family. Weekly trips to the beach — a daily activity when I was a toddler — were no longer possible. I had to contend with temperatures below 70 degrees, and in my classes, I was often the only minority, if not one of two or three. It also felt, over time, as if we were succumbing to a strange kind of pressure, a sense of always striving, hastening toward some elusive moment beyond the present.
But overall, adjusting, to me, didn’t feel like a significant leap or a stretch too far beyond my comfort zone. Despite my less-than-fashionable entrance into middle school, I found my way. I settled in, made friends, though sometimes it felt as if I were an exotic specimen, initially intriguing with my lilting accent, brown skin and sun-soaked reminiscences.
There were awkward moments, such as when my homeroom teacher asked me to lead the class in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on my first day and I had to confess to not knowing the words. When a new friend said, “I was just joshing you” after making a joke in art class, I must have asked her to repeat herself at least five times, struggling to grasp the unfamiliar slang. Similarly, I bungled phrases and had to repeat myself when I pronounced words differently, and there were experiences and references to which I could never relate. Eventually, however, I was folded into the familiar fabric of things, found my kindred tribe of friends.
Last week, as I thought about how I adapted, my own resilience and self-assurance at only 10 years old struck me as remarkable. Though I considered myself a shy child, in the face of intimidating change, I had the confidence to show up just as I was — trusting that was enough. I never imagined I wouldn’t be liked, that there would be no room for me in this wild and cliquish adolescent universe. And I thrived.
That awareness has been reassuring, not only for the adult me who sometimes forgets she’s in possession of such pluck and pliability but as I consider the year unfolding before my niece.
I hope she can appreciate and accept herself for who she is, and know that beautiful, smart and spunky girl will always be worth celebrating — and always more than enough.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times