The hardest things in life don’t last forever.
“Hey, Brenda, is it… is it OK if I sit here maybe?”
“Sorry. Our table is full.”
I was in year four. I was new at school. And each day I ate lunch alone. I would often sit at the end of a long table of people – near enough to try to blend into a group, but far enough away not to face an overt rejection. I tried to look busy, taking long, slow bites of my favourite bologna and cheese sandwich. I would scribble in notebooks and steal frequent glances at the clock. I prayed for time to move faster. After a while, I began sneaking into a stall in the girl’s bathroom and waiting the rest of lunch.
This experience hurt. It hurt to not belong to a tribe. It hurt to feel inadequate.
I wanted to tell my mum. I wanted to tell her that things weren’t “fine” like I said every single day when she asked about school. I wanted to tell her that I was embarrassed to sit at a lunch table by myself. I wanted to tell her that I felt a sea of eyes on me and that I knew people were wondering what was wrong with me. I wanted to ask her what was wrong with me. But I couldn’t do that, because my mum loved me and I knew she would try to fix my problem. She would try to call other mums and make me friends. She would do this out of love, but it would make me feel worse. So I ignored the problem.
I ate lunch alone for months and remained stoic until one day I came home, went straight to my room and burst into tears. The pain of my loneliness could no longer be contained. My mum came in and sat down on the bed beside me.
She gently asked, "Honey, what's been going on?"
Finally, I said, "Mummy, I eat lunch alone."
I thought I heard a crack - those five words broke a small piece of my mum's heart. I could see the pain in her eyes.
Then I waited. I waited for the barrage of questions about why I was eating alone and how come I didn't make an effort to sit with so-and-so. I waited for her to suggest meeting up with some of the kid's mums from school so she could help me make friends. I waited for her to say she was going to call the school principal and give him a piece of her mind. I waited for the problem-solving campaign to kick off, but it never did.
Instead, my mum said to me, "Baby, I know it hurts. When I came to this country from India I didn't know anyone. Did you know that?"
"But you have lots of friends."
"Now I do, honey, but I didn't know anyone when I came. And I didn't drive and I barely spoke the language. And when I got my first job as a preschool teaching assistant, I also ate my lunch alone for a while. It made me feel sad. Is that how you feel?"
"Yeah, it makes me sad and, well, mostly embarrassed."
"Yes, that's something we go through sometimes. But you know what I learned? Most hard things we face in life don't last forever. Honey, tell me more about how you feel."