Being the Class Project: Reflections upon False Inclusion

Helping the awkward new student seemed like a good idea, so why did it make everything worse?

In fourth grade I changed schools between the third and fourth quarters. I not only changed schools, but also entirely different states, as my mother took my sister and I with her to live with Grandma for a few months. (I do not know the circumstances behind this; adults did not feel the need to explain things to children.) Undoubtedly it was to be to my benefit, because my initial fourth-grade teacher was a poor example of the profession, and I did not mind leaving her classroom. Another benefit to me was leaving the cohort of students I had been with for the past few years; I hoped the new students would be “nicer”. Unfortunately, I was an odd little girl and apparently went through life with a sign on my back that read “clueless,” as I was to be picked upon where-ever I went.

All transfer students face the same challenges of adjusting to different neighborhoods, buildings, teachers, textbooks, rules, and grading schemes. Apparently it did not take long for the teacher to catch onto the fact that I was not adjusting and making friends in the hoped-for manner. Presumably a request was put to my classmates to help me by offering me encouragement. I have no idea how this was instituted; like many of the subtler or implicit social things, the effort was completely off my radar.

One of the reinforcement mechanisms the teacher had was a “warm-fuzzy” type box for the students to drop in anonymous notes praising each other for various activities. These were read aloud by the teacher once a week. After I had been there for a couple of weeks there was an abrupt flurry of missives complimenting me on my efforts at spending time on reading or being helpful in my classroom duties. I found such approval odd, for we all had the same duties, and reading was simply something I enjoyed. Why should someone be commended for having fun? Actually, I found such praise to be entirely unrewarding, and the realization of that sat uneasily upon my young mind. I did not have the concept of “hollow praise” in my mental world yet, but I knew that although the words given to me were accurate, they lacked any semblance of real meaning. If the immediate purpose of this exercise was to boost my self-esteem or to comfort me, it truly did not work. Rather, it made me more anxious with the indescribable angst about how I was “supposed” to feel, and added to the ever-growing concern and unease about what I was “doing wrong”.

Moreover, if the long-term goal of this exercise was to initiate friendships between myself and the other students, it likewise did not work. Friendship is usually a natural result of being together for periods of time, of having similar backgrounds, circumstances and interests. Given the numbers of students in the classroom, the chances of at least one or two becoming my friend would have seemed likely. However my scholastic aptitudes may have been erratic and wanting, I was obviously a socially awkward child. Not only did I lack the physical graces necessary to playground games, I also lacked the interpersonal graces that were becoming much more important among ten-year olds. However, I was not just a clumsy nine-year old girl, I also had invisible differences that handicapped my social abilities. I had trouble recognizing people, and it took me a long time to figure out ways of reliably identifying them. My conversations lacked the kind of give-and-take where one speaker offers the other person conversational openings. I had no sense between when people where done with a sentence or done talking, and was prone to interrupting (I still have trouble with this at times). For all I had a rich imagination, I did not have the intuitive sense of what the stories were supposed to be for “Barbie Gets Married” or other doll games; I derived more pleasure from arranging dollhouse furniture than in doing anything with the figures.

I was much more interested in learning about and discussing nonfiction, and my particular passion that year was the fascinating realm of mysteries, detectives, spies and secret codes. These were not however, the interests of most of the other girls who prattled interminably about horses, pop music, or Betty and Veronica comics. They instead were developing interests in being stewardesses when they grew up, or in reading and endlessly emoting over pre-teen romance stories. My mother complained, “Why can’t you be more normal?” The girls told me that I sounded like the Professor from the Gilligan’s Island television show and laughed at me. I could not figure out why that was not a compliment; he was the only sensible person in the show!

Once again, I found more pleasure – and the opportunity to recharge my energies for the rest of the school day – by spending all recess on the swings or reading a book. “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” the teacher told me, nudging me away from where I was sitting leaning against a tree trunk and reading my latest book (a library volume on how FBI agents caught counterfeiters) “Go and have fun with the other children.”

The efforts to include me failed on several fronts, but they all had the same ulterior mode of operation. Each of the different manœuvres relied on trying to create friendships by having the previously-bonded group of students “help” the newcomer.

Oh, they tried to help. Two or three girls made me their special case for a couple of weeks, until they tired of the exercise and dropped me from their attentions. They dutifully tried to help me integrate into their little play groups, but it was quickly apparent that I was the unplayable Old Maid in the card deck. Given a choice, eventually no one wanted to add me to their games; my presence was a burden whether on the ball field or the skipping-rope line. The determination of these few students was probably encouraged by the teacher (and other staff members), and undoubtedly they thrived on the social rewards of being good junior helpers who would care for someone needy. If nothing else, my being the inferior “other” just strengthened the existing social bonds between them.

Unfortunately, caring for was not the same thing as caring about. If I complained to the teacher about being put into awkward situations from being pushed into playgroups where neither I nor the children wanted my presence, my concerns and discomfort were dismissed. “You should thank them for doing that for you,” the teacher told me, “They’re letting you play with them. You should appreciate that.” But when I played with them, I was made fun of for my inability to do things the right way. I could not understand why I should express thanks to others for the opportunity to be ridiculed.

Ah, ridicule … I was deficient in any sort of concern for fashion fads, and gave scant thought to my appearance; putting on clean clothes and more or less brushing my hair was adequate in my book. Being tactily defensive, I could not stand to let anyone mess with me. The problem wasn’t who was doing it, but what they were doing. When my mother brushed my hair she would order, “Stop being so squirmy! Why do you have to be so difficult?” If I complained that being handled hurt, she dismissed my protests, “This doesn’t hurt – stop being so whiney!” Even collar tags on store-bought clothes drove me nuts. “Just ignore it,” Grandma told me, “you’re being too sensitive.” (In turn, Grandma could never stand the feel of cotton balls that came in aspirin bottles, but somehow that was different.)

The girls tried to help me look more girly by doing cute things with my hair, but my long, limp tresses were not amenable to being braided or to holding barrettes. The hairdressing felt like an attack upon my body, a strange sort of help-attack. This activity was especially bad because I was no longer even a person but rather a living salon dummy that needed fixing up. There was a strange lack of personal boundaries; they could touch me but I was not allowed to touch them in like manner, which I could not comprehend. Worse, I was not allowed to protest this inequality, and they chided me, “Hush now; hold still and be a good girl. We’re only trying to help you.” And there I was, compelled by everyone important, that I should coöperate and make friends. “Don’t be a cry-baby. You want to be pretty, don’t you?”

Help was apparently something that is done to you and for you; I was the passive recipient for help. They were strangely disempowering, these activities that were ostensibly for my benefit. They certainly did nothing to integrate me into the student body. Instead of improving my own grooming abilities, the whole “fix up Andrea” scene only served to further socially disable me. Demonstrating their superior hairdressing abilities not only affirmed their capacities for following the proper rôles, but also strengthened their memberships in the clique with all that social grooming behavior.

Together, my disinclination for being swayed into primping, and my inability to be socially coerced into behaving normally, had serious affects upon my acceptance into the social milieu of the schoolyard and neighborhood. I was poor at “passing” and although my differences were not obvious at first glance, they eventually piled up like snowflakes obscuring the scenery. People dislike it when someone manages to pass for a while, because the majority then feels that they have been deceived. I was the odd one out, but unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, did not yet have a special talent that would earn me begrudging tolerance for being useful in my oddity.

Their attempts to normalize me repeatedly failed, and I bore the given responsibility for that failure. It was my fault that I had problems; I just needed to “try harder” to fit in and be a fully functioning member of the scholastic social scene. The hidden promise was that if I managed to overcome whatever obstacles were in my path, I would be accepted. However, the true obstacles I had to overcome were not intrinsic, but due to the others’ lack of acceptance of me as myself. As Charlie Brown lamented in the Valentine’s Day cartoon special: “I know nobody likes me; why do we need a holiday to emphasize that?”

I knew there was something terribly wrong with this entire paradigm, but did not understand it well enough to identify the problem, much less to effectively protest against the dreadfulness of it. Unfortunately, this was only fourth grade. There was much worse bullying and sexual harassment in the years ahead of me.

20 Comments

  1. 19 March 2015 at 4:33

    […] Being the Class Project: Reflections upon False Inclusion | Andrea's Buzzing About: […]

  2. dabbledoer said,

    18 March 2015 at 22:59

    Reblogged this on bannon06.

  3. Sarah Tomes said,

    14 January 2015 at 20:50

    I’m sorry that you went through this. I had a lot of trouble fitting in, in school, too. I’m sharing some advice in case it helps anyone have an idea of how to answer the question, “So I see that approach really did not work. What could we try instead?”

    One thing I’ve learned is that friendship is based on Respect, not Proximity. Without respect, spending more time together just adds to the time spent miserable. But if respect can somehow be developed, then the friendship will have a chance to grow. I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but I think it would be something to try for and think about, if a parent or teacher is trying to help a child make friends.

    Instead of just forcing them to be included and yet ridiculed; try to find ways to give the child opportunities to be genuinely respected by the other kids, and vise versa. (Again, don’t just force it in a hollow way, such as saying “you better treat her with respect, or else!”.) Instead, share things like “I have respect for ___ because she ___ (ie: always tries again even when it is difficult).” But you have to pick something the kids would find inherently respect-worthy, and it is important that the person speaking be one of the people who the kids respect as well. This may have been the goal behind the compliments, such as being good at reading — but if the other kids don’t have respect for the idea of being good at reading, it won’t help because they don’t care. Or if it just emphasizes one kid’s natural strength at something they struggle with, that will only make them jealous and not help either.

    I would recommend finding ways to help grow genuine respect in the classroom, for the kid who is struggling and for the kids who are not, all around. But find ways for it to be truly genuine. I am certain that the definition of what is worthy of respect is an inherent core part of a person, and also that it can be influenced from the outside. If I knew exactly how to do that, I believe I would have more friends even now. But here’s passing the baton (as in a relay race) to whoever might know how to do that next step.

  4. Taryn East said,

    30 June 2011 at 10:33

    Love this article! It’s great to hear that I’m not the only one. My family moved several times when I was in school – in fact I went to a total of five different schools through my lifetime.
    Given that I’m the sort of person that takes at least a year or two to make friends, that was difficult – and I also had teachers thinking they were being kind by telling other people to make friends with me.

    I totally agree about people acting like they’ve been betrayed when they realise you’ve just been faking normal to fit in. I think people assume that you’re the same as them – and when you do something different you must be doing it on purpose: not just because actually you’ve been different all along and it’s just taken them a while to notice.

    Your comment about playing dolls reminds me of a quote that my aunts still throw back at me from time to time. When I was very young, one of them asked me about playing dolls, and I told them I couldn’t understand the point because “you just handle them and the put them down again”. I preferred jigsaw puzzles. :)

  5. 25 March 2010 at 16:17

    “Co-operate” and its occasional pair of dots (the rare, but still occasionally seen, “coöperate”) have nothing to do with Greek, but follow an old and now fading tradition for how to spell pairs of vowels in words of Latin origin that include vowel-pairs which might be mistaken for quite different vowels in English.

    Whatever left you thinking that it was Greek?

  6. Nancy said,

    4 August 2009 at 16:37

    Andrea,

    I can so relate to you! I also swung on the swings through elemantary school at recess, and by spring of 5th grade I had trouble making and keeping friends. Not only then but from 6th to 9th grade as well.

    Anyway I also felt comfort by playing with dolls and putting things in order. As a matter of fact I still play! I’m heavily involved in dollhouse miniatures which I found extremely therapeutic in dealing with adult stresses like finding a job!

  7. 4 June 2008 at 16:13

    […] You can be shunned, which is being ignored by everyone. This means that: (1) at one point you were part of the group in some small official way, and (2) you should be able to rectify your transgressions and (3) you still have the opportunity to rejoin the group, albeit likely doing so as the lowest caste (again). This is contempt for the Other; the Other must somehow have done something bad, and therefore “deserved” their fate. As the target, you are given the responsibility for the failure to be integrated into the group. It is your fault that you have problems; you just need to “try harder” to fit in and be a fully functioning member of the scholastic social scene. The hidden promise is that if you somehow manage to overcome whatever natural obstacles and artificial hurdles are put in your path, you will be accepted. (example: Being the Class Project: reflections upon false inclusion) […]

  8. Uly said,

    25 May 2008 at 18:32

    The dots over the o in cooperate aren’t an umlaut, they’re a diaeresis. Umlauts indicate a change in how the vowel is said. Diaereses indicate that the vowel isn’t silent.

  9. Kate said,

    28 January 2008 at 1:39

    I remember the other girls trying to “fix” me and make me their projects too.

    To my knowledge it was never ordered by a teacher; in fact the teachers could have cared less (I believe this apathy leads to Columbine incidents).

    It was just yuppie girls trying to make me fit in, rather than accepting me for the quiet, geeky bookworm that I am.

  10. twofistededitor said,

    19 October 2006 at 13:29

    It’s astonishing how many young girls, regardless of level of disability, have stories like this. I remember reading those FBI stories, sitting on a large rock on the edge of playground to read during recess, being picked on by girls who didn’t think that I ‘fit in’ properly. I also remember (and still occassionally do) stacking legos into towers or pyramids based on shape and/or size instead of building creative things with them.

    I had the added stigma of JRA, a children’s form of rheumatism. I had a tendancy to be a teachers’ pet already, plus all of my teachers were told to give me tasks that involved me being up out of my seat. This meant that I was always called on to pass out papers, write on the board, clap the erasers and run messages to other rooms in the school. I had no idea until high school that my teachers were being given these instructions, and it was just another ingredient in an already-difficult childhood.

  11. Justthisguy said,

    11 September 2006 at 23:05

    Well, “role” did start out French. I think the umlaut in “co-operate” comes from Greek, though. What do y’all think?

  12. 11 September 2006 at 21:14

    Ah. The tradition must be pretty old. I think I encountered my mother spelling “cooperation” with an umlaut when I was a kid, but she was the only person I ever knew — of any age — who did so. You are the first person I have ever encountered who, in English, spells “role” with a circumflex. It makes me think of the French pronunciation.

  13. qw88nb88 said,

    11 September 2006 at 17:59

    Ballastexistenz asked, “I have a question by the way (been meaning to ask for awhile). What’s with the umlaut on cooperate and circumflex on role?”

    Because they are (traditionally) spelled that way and to me they look “naked” without the diacritical marks. Whether or not I spell words with them depends upon what kind of computer I’m using (they are much easier to do on a Mac) and what program I’m using.

  14. 11 September 2006 at 13:18

    […] An essay “Being the Class Project: Reflections upon False Inclusion” by Andrea, over at the Andrea’s Buzzing About blog, is just such a thought-provoking piece – a more than worthy read. […]

  15. Ruth said,

    11 September 2006 at 8:46

    In 3rd grade my only friend decided to be part of the popular group. They let her join, but it was obvious even to me that they didn’t really like her-it was convenient to have a lackey. I unconsiously rejected such a negation of self to fit in. I chose to remain myself, even if that meant I was alone. Luckily my family didn’t give a damn about popularity.

    I never cared about fashion until I learned to sew in junior high. Somehow the act of creating something to wear was satisfying to me in a way shopping is not. Now I’m middle-aged and fully entitled to look frumpy.

  16. 11 September 2006 at 7:37

    I have a question by the way (been meaning to ask for awhile). What’s with the umlaut on cooperate and circumflex on role?

  17. Sharon said,

    11 September 2006 at 1:39

    It was very interesting to read this Andrea, and I wished I could just go back in time and tell your teacher to just leave you in peace to read!!

    When Duncan was 3, he went for a few hours each week to a mainstream nursery with an assistant, and he was ‘looked after’ by a few little girls. They seemed to think of him as a big doll, he never spoke but he liked to sit on their knee and twiddle their long hair.

    I’m happy for him to grow up without the constraints of school. I don’t see how mainstream schools can really be inclusive of people like him, without resorting to what you have just described here; ‘Be nice to him, he’s special, his brain doesn’t work properly…’ I’d rather he gets to spend time with family and friends who really like him and know him, and let him do what he enjoys. Then as he gets older, he can make real friendships with people who also appreciate the person he is.

  18. Catana said,

    10 September 2006 at 20:53

    A lot of this was familiar to me, with variations. The whole idea of “fitting in” is so weird, as if there’s a space that you should fit into. And if you don’t fit, they’ll do their best to stuff you in one way or another.

  19. Jannalou said,

    10 September 2006 at 19:35

    Wow, Andrea… so much of this sounds like me. I don’t know if I was ever a “class project” in the way you describe, but a lot of the things you wrote about how you were/are – that’s me:

    My conversations lacked the kind of give-and-take where one speaker offers the other person conversational openings.

    I still get stuck in “monologue” sometimes.

    I had no sense between when people where done with a sentence or done talking, and was prone to interrupting (I still have trouble with this at times).

    I don’t know how many times I’ve thought it was my turn to talk and found out I was wrong… I always feel a little bit stupid when that happens.

    For all I had a rich imagination, I did not have the intuitive sense of what the stories were supposed to be for “Barbie Gets Married” or other doll games; I derived more pleasure from arranging dollhouse furniture than in doing anything with the figures.

    I’ve told my mother that I don’t remember playing with dolls. She says I did, but mostly I just dressed & undressed them. I didn’t pretend they were alive. Barbies I collected and put into setups, but I didn’t play with them. (Mom asserts that my dressing and undressing, or making setups, counts as playing.) I love playing with Brio trains now, mostly just because I like designing tracks and seeing if I can use every piece and end up with a functional setup for the trains to run on.

    My mother complained, “Why can’t you be more normal?”

    Mom didn’t say it to me per se, but I felt that she was somehow disappointed that I wasn’t more popular or whatever. The thing is, I didn’t know how to make friends, so I couldn’t be popular.

    I found more pleasure – and the opportunity to recharge my energies for the rest of the school day – by spending all recess on the swings or reading a book.

    I remember playing on the swings with the kindergarten kids in grade three. I spent recess on the monkey bars in grade four. I don’t remember grade five. Grade six started on the merry-go-round and then I started playing reporter with one of the boys in the class. It was the year the Winter Olympics were in Calgary, and there was this sheet of ice in the field that some of the athletic boys liked to show off on by sliding across it, so this other ‘nerdy’ boy and I would pretend we were reporters, covering the Olympics. It was a way to be involved without actually being involved.

    If I complained to the teacher about being put into awkward situations from being pushed into playgroups where neither I nor the children wanted my presence, my concerns and discomfort were dismissed. “You should thank them for doing that for you,” the teacher told me, “They’re letting you play with them. You should appreciate that.” But when I played with them, I was made fun of for my inability to do things the right way.

    This is like my mom’s comment about the girls teasing me (see my most recent blog post for a description of this situation).

    I was deficient in any sort of concern for fashion fads, and gave scant thought to my appearance; putting on clean clothes and more or less brushing my hair was adequate in my book.

    I wanted to dress right, and still do, but somehow nothing ever quite “works” the way it should. I always feel like I’m playing dress up when I put on the really trendy clothes.

    It was my fault that I had problems; I just needed to “try harder” to fit in and be a fully functioning member of the scholastic social scene. The hidden promise was that if I managed to overcome whatever obstacles were in my path, I would be accepted. However, the true obstacles I had to overcome were not intrinsic, but due to the others’ lack of acceptance of me as myself. As Charlie Brown lamented in the Valentine’s Day cartoon special: “I know nobody likes me; why do we need a holiday to emphasize that?”

    What’s weird is that I always identified with Charlie Brown 100%, but when I look back on things (with the wisdom of years and adulthood) I realise that I actually did have a fair number of friends. People did actually like me for the most part, I just had no idea how to respond to them appropriately. And that awkwardness makes “nobody likes me” real, at least in one’s own mind.

  20. Ms. Clark said,

    10 September 2006 at 18:06

    This is really a nice essay. You ought to write something like this for a magazine.

    I don’t remember being anyone’s fix up project until about 8th grade, then my friend tried to help me with some ideas for my hair, but she was my friend and didn’t object when I didn’t follow “orders,” we enjoyed each other’s company. She was NT and socially at ease just about anywhere, but there was only so much I could gain by learning from her what normal looked like, in junior high and high school I think much of my social persona, such as it was, was an echo-persona of her.

    I’m glad I wasn’t the new girl, class fix up project like you were, though I got bullied plenty starting in 5th grade, I think, I was rejected and no one wanted to be my friend in 4th grade (changed schools) but I wasn’t bullied, exactly. 3rd grade was ok, I only have a tiny memory of all of second grade and can’t remember who my teacher was or anything about him or her. 1st grade was a blur, but no one bullied me that I remember. I remember being too smart compared to the rest of the kids in 1st grade. I remember kindergarten somewhat, it was okay. I remeber that teacher, she was nice.


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