New Kid on the Block

For the better part of oh, let's say, 37 years, that was me. Unlike my son, who has now lived in the same neighborhood in which he was born for nearly the whole of his first thirteen years (and counting), by the time I was thirteen, I (and my parents and siblings) had moved four times and another move was on the horizon. Even today, when people ask me where I am from, I have no idea how to respond.

I was born the year my parents were finishing their internships for medical school; we moved when I was five or six months old, so to begin with my birthtown is in no way my hometown. Five years in one city, two in another, another one back in the city where we had lived until I was five, six in a city I had never even heard of before I found the map in my parents' room when I was eight, three in a city I associated only with the route to my grandparents' house, and then I was off to college (yes, I was seventeen; I skipped second grade after the first two or three months, which made me the new kid in the class twice that year). Four years in college, two in postgraduate studies abroad, two and a bit doing my coursework and oral exams in one city before moving back abroad to yet another city for three and a half years, and then finally here, where, miraculously enough, I have now been living--with one interruption when my son was two--for the past fifteen plus years.

I have no idea how to behave. All my life, the one thing I wanted--okay, one of the few things that I wanted most, including (oh, will I carry this for the rest of my life?) to be thin--was not to have to be the new kid on the block--again. Okay, so it's not as if we were army brats, moving literally every two years (although one of the moves, when I was five, was to the air force base where my father was posted for two years; he spent the second of those in Thailand, sewing up soldiers), but if we had been army brats, at least that would have given us some identity. As it was, my siblings and I were always just perpetually new: new to the neighborhood (we moved within the city when I was two, right after I got my puppy), new to the grade mid-year (the kids on the playground that year insisted I was going to fail third grade), new to the accelerated program (which for some reason I was not put into until I was in seventh grade, despite the fact that my siblings had both been attending the accelerated elementary school for most of that time; of course, all the kids in seventh grade already knew each other, too), new to the high school twice (my first high school started in ninth grade, then we moved and I started again in tenth, with people who for the most part had known each other for the better part of their lives). Even in graduate school, which for many people provides at least a certain degree of stability, given how long history and humanities Ph.D.s tend to take, I was never in one place long enough to achieve any kind of seniority. Indeed, it was not until our son was six and I had just gotten tenure that I had lived in any one house or apartment longer than the six years between eight and fourteen--and then we moved to the apartment where we have been living since.

So--I am sure you are asking--what? So what, indeed? Have I told you how painful it was to be bullied that year I was eight simply because I was the new kid on the block? The neighborhood girls (yes, the girls) would ride their bicycles past our house calling out names ("Full Ton, Full Ton! Get out here, fatty!"), challenging me to (ahem) come out and play. Eventually there was a bit of a punch-up and after that at least one of them became my friend, but it was years before I had anything like what felt like a group of friends. That year, the year I was thirteen, still counts as probably the best when I was growing up: I had friends at school, friends on the swim team, crushes on cute guys that even seemed interested in me (and, for once in my life thanks to adolescent hormones, I wasn't even fat)--and then we moved. (My friends built me a dollhouse as a going-away present; I'm still waiting to make it real.) I had some friends in high school, but only one with whom I am at all in touch now. The last summer after we graduated, before we all scattered to college, my closest group of friends, along with my s0-called "first boyfriend," dumped me; at least, that is what it felt like whenever they would come to the pizza restaurant where I was working and tell me about the movie they had just seen, while I was begging them to invite me along some night when I didn't have to work. (They never did.)

No, I don't expect you to feel sorry for me. (Well, maybe a little.) I am sure most of us have similar horror stories about growing up (although, happily enough, I don't think my son does, thank God!). The irony is--the frakking (as my son would put it) irony is--that now that I actually have lived in one place long enough to know quite a few people in the neighborhood, have deep histories with many of them, as well as lots of experience getting around in the city and lots of memories about things that I have done here, it doesn't make any difference. The new kids (and oh, how I wish I could name names at this moment) are now telling me what to do.

I want to punch them.

Maybe I'm just old. How many times have I had that look on my face that I remember seeing so many times when I was growing up, sententiously trying to explain something to my elders who for reasons I couldn't quite explain looked so clueless when now I realize they were simply holding their tongues? Why is it so painful for me to be told how to drive in my own neighborhood or when such-and-such an annual event is supposed to start? Why does it drive me so crazy to have the new kid telling me things about people I have known now (if they're fencers) for well over six years (the limit of my childhood knowledge of any one group of friends); if they're colleagues, some of them for well over fifteen? Why do I care so much about my status as the One Who Has Been Here Longer Than You Have? Why can't I just smile that smile and let the puppies (alias, newcomers) get on with being young?

I'm a bitch, I know it. If the puppies are misbehaving, it is largely my fault. I encouraged them, lowered my status in some way to make them think that it was okay to challenge me. It does help, I must admit, to complain about the puppies to even older dogs than I am. They know what it feels like to have their seniority challenged, maybe even by me in my younger and more foolish days. And yet, it's not as if they never bit me on the nose in order to put me back in my place. Oh, but I really don't want to be a bully. I always knew why the other kids hated me so much: I disrupted the social order simply by being me. I was new; I was (sad to say) smart. They more or less had to pick on me in order to reassure themselves that their status was still intact. But I put up with the bullying; I put up with being new for the better part of my life. I put up with having no memories to draw on of how so-and-so behaved back-when in order to help guide me about how to interact with them in the moment. I do not see why now I have to put up with being told, quite frankly, how to suck eggs, when I am the one who has the local knowledge, not them.

St. Benedict was wise in a number of ways, but quite possibly the wisest was in the provision he made in his Rule for determining the status of the monks in any given community. As Benedict put it (chapter 63):

"Let all keep their places in the monastery established by the time of their entrance, the merit of their lives and the decision of the Abbot. Yet the Abbot must not disturb the flock committed to him, nor by an arbitrary use of his power ordain anything unjustly; but let him always think of the account he will have to render to God for all his decisions and his deeds.

"Therefore in that order which he has established or which they already had, let the brethren approach to receive the kiss of peace and Communion, intone the Psalms and stand in choir. And in no place whatever should age decide the order or be prejudicial to it; for Samuel and Daniel as mere boys judged priests.

"Except for those already mentioned, therefore, whom the Abbot has promoted by a special decision or demoted for definite reasons, all the rest shall take their order according to the time of their entrance. Thus, for example, he who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day, whatever be his age or his dignity, must know that he is junior to one who came at the first hour of the day. Boys, however, are to be kept under discipline in all matters and by everyone" (my emphasis).

Alas for all those of us who do not have the discipline of the Rule to help smooth over the inevitable changes in status that occur when a stranger arrives in town! What I wish most at the moment, however, is that the stranger would get out of my head and let me go back to the way things were before.

Or maybe it's just time to move.


  1. Just for the record, I'm in favor of nose-biting. It is a useful form of social conditioning.

  2. Indeed. I've had my nose bitten more than once. In retrospect, the biter was definitely doing me a favor!


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