I took one step onto her old grade school playground and immediately knew how awful this event would feel, both for my daughter and her father and me. As if being on crutches in a walking boot wasn’t bad enough, her dress wasn’t the “in” style. She had her father and me with her for love and support, but we certainly weren’t enough.
As the others arrived and grouped, something happened that we had witnessed since grade school. The majority cohort of young women and men who the Head of School described as “lifetime friends who will always have your back” joyously converged together in happy groups. Happy groups that did not include my daughter.
They had shown her long ago that they did and would not have her back.
We held our daughter’s hand to let her know we supported her. (Photo courtesy of the author)
At my daughter’s prestigious prep school, it’s sometimes considered a badge of honor to graduate twelfth grade as a “Lifer,” who started in Pre-K or Kindergarten and stayed through. There were 16 of them in my daughter’s class. Sixteen students were celebrated during the Lifer party for their connection to one another, their love of the school, and the lifelong bonds they will always reflect on with warmth and pride.
Except my daughter won’t.
The ostracism started in grade school and was most pronounced in fifth grade. The “Queen Bee” decided that my daughter no longer fit (and wasn’t even close enough), and her minions followed suit. The slights were subtle. They were not aggressive or obvious to a bystander. But we have all seen and experienced exclusion, and the subtle yet insidious power plays that cut to the core.
The exclusion continued in middle school, though a new girl entered who became an immediate best friend. This friendship shored my daughter until she was suddenly iced out without explanation. Then she was outed to others, but luckily, there was theater, chorus, and a small handful of people who accepted her. Until one of them openly messaged my girl, telling her she would go to hell for being gay.
There were tears and loneliness at home, but strength and perseverance at school. (There were tears at school too, and thankfully a select few wonderful teachers and grown-ups who offered safe spaces). My daughter thrived academically and blew everyone away on stage. She peer-counseled friends and classmates who also felt ‘othered’ and ostracized.
She represented the queer community and tirelessly advocated for equity and inclusion, despite the repeated exclusion she encountered and felt viscerally. And she tried to stay true to one of the tenants of her school’s motto — kindness. She was kind and sought out kindness.
When everyone else is going with the flow, it is very lonely to swim against the current. And sometimes I wonder if that is what causes aloneness. Does one’s insistence upon living an authentic life put them in direct conflict with being part of a group? That was and is my lived experience. And maybe I modeled it for her. Perhaps my insistence that she remain faithful to her values and beliefs set her up to be ‘othered.’ Or perhaps it doesn’t have anything to do with that, and some kids (and adults) can just be mean.
During the Lifer program (and its many speeches about how close this group of students is, has been, and will be), I saw my daughter fight back the tears. Her father and I quietly reached for her hand to let her know we were there, and we knew how painful this was for her. At one point, we were all holding hands together, a moment that moved my husband to snap a photo.
After the official program ended, we left quickly, unwilling and unable to smile, nod, and pretend that being a Lifer was something to be celebrated instead of often feeling like a life sentence.
Leaving a place and people they’ve known for 14 years will be hard for some.
For my daughter, and in many ways for me, it will be freeing.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.
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