Although it wasn't a long move, the change was pretty significant. I went from city to small town, from a non-traditional school to regular public school. Being the new kid in school also meant that people saw me as new and interesting. In the year or two before we had moved, I had lost all of my friends and was being bullied because, as one girl informed me, they didn't like how smart I was. So having all my new classmates want me as their friend was surprising and overwhelming.
I sat alone at lunch the first day. A few kids from different tables came over to ask if I wanted to play with them. By then, I was so overwhelmed that I just wanted to be left alone. I didn't know anything about the people here, about who shared my interests and who didn't, and I hated the pressure of their expectations. I could tell that this choice was important and that they all wanted me to make it as soon as possible. But I lacked the information necessary to make such a big decision.
Then, near the end of lunch, a little brunette girl came over. Looking at the ground and speaking in a tiny voice, she asked if I wanted to spend recess with her and her friends.
I liked her right away. She wasn't like the others, who seemed to think I should give them my friendship immediately and without second thought. This girl was quiet and undemanding and clearly didn't think I would say yes.
So I did.
That is the story of how I met my best friend LaPriel.
I say "invited" because it was mandatory. Four girls in my grade were pulled out of one of our recesses and told to join the counselor at her office. There, she introduced the idea: that she had pinpointed the four of us as having "social issues" and needing help making new friends. Therefore, we would spend two recesses a week with her, playing games and developing "friendship skills." There was also a group of boys who would have their own Friendship Club other days.
Being my precocious little self, I said, "This is from that survey we took earlier, isn't it? The other kids said we were weird or didn't have friends, and that's why we're here."
The counselor looked horrified. "No, of course not!"
(Earlier in the year, we had taken a survey about friendship and bullying. We'd been specifically asked to write down the names of those in our class who were bullied or who struggled to make friends. I wasn't stupid then and I'm not stupid now: that's definitely at least part of how she found us.)
Leaving her office afterwards, the four of us looked at each other. None of us were friends yet, but we didn't have anything against each other, either. I asked them how they thought we were picked, and we ended up deciding that none of us needed this club. Although we were all on the "fringe" of our class, we each had a close friend or two, and we were happy with that. We laughed at the counselor's concern. We laughed at adults and their insistence at interfering in kids' lives.
But we didn't mind going to the meetings, either. I, personally, was a big fan of The Babysitter's Club series and was always joining or trying to make new clubs as a result. Being in a club, even one as ridiculous as this, appealed to me. By the time the counselor ended her club, a few months later, I'd made friends with the other girls. Those friendships weren't as deep or as lasting as my friendship with LaPriel, but they did matter.
In Friendship Club, I also learned about a concept that has since been very important to me: empathy.
During one of our early meetings, the counselor got out a board game and had us play with her. The game, unsurprisingly, was actually a secret test of our skills in relating to and understanding our peers, disguised in the form of "fun." I beat everyone, including the counselor, on the first go.
"You have incredible empathy skills," she told me, before explaining what empathy was.
I was a glutton for praise who loved shattering adult expectations, and whenever someone told me I was gifted in an area, I latched onto that. So it was with this. Less than a year later, I came to the conclusion that I was, in fact, psychic: that I had telepathic powers.
That, of course, was an exaggeration, but empathy is the clear real-world equivalent of psychic powers. (That's what I love about speculative fiction--you get to explore the most beautiful and fantastical parts of our world while throwing away all the boring bits. Everything has an equivalent in the real world, and each story delves deep into our human potential to do great things.) Being able to look at someone and understand their thoughts, even feel their feelings, is a gift with a lot of potency. It can also be devastating, especially for someone struggling with too many unwieldy feelings of their own.
Thinking of myself as psychic helped me cope with the fact that I was constantly being inundated by emotion, and it gave me purpose in a life that mental illness had already turned dark. That idea meant so much to me that the short-lived fantasy stories I'd been writing finally developed into full-length novels featuring girls with psychic gifts. That was the true beginning of my career as a novelist.
So while Friendship Club may have been an strange and unnecessary idea from the mind of a person I didn't like very much, it did have a big impact on my life. I'm grateful for that, for the friendships that have guided my life, and for my very own empathetic gift.
Image via smartkids.co.uk.