It was an artificially bright room, crowded with too many tables. The food was nothing special, but I knew that the nature center volunteers had worked really hard to make this lunch available to us – especially since they didn’t normally feed groups as large as ours. I patiently waited my turn, filled my plate, and then turned and searched for my three friends, who had already gone to find a seat. There were still several empty tables, but I found the girls I was looking for in the back of the room, at a tiny table pushed against the wall, barely able to fit even their three chairs around it. At first, I was puzzled; why would they choose to sit there when there were so many other, more roomy options? Then, all of a sudden, I understood: they had deliberately chosen those seats, knowing that by doing so they would exclude me from the table. They, apparently, didn’t want to hang out with me anymore.
It’s bad enough for a thirteen year-old to be shunned by her friends, but what really made the situation bleak was the fact that I was half-way around the world – in New Zealand, actually. I was touring with a group of middle school kids from Florida and Colorado, and so far, I hadn’t been having the best time. Everyone in the group seemed to have formed cliques from day one of the trip, but shy, hesitant, awkward me hadn’t been so fortunate. I had tagged along with those three girls because they had seemed friendly at first, and because I was too uncomfortable with myself to talk to any other people. Even after I realized that I had nothing in common with these girls, that I really didn’t even like them all that much, I stuck around. I kept trying to act more like them – nonchalant, “mature”, self-assured, and arrogant – in the hopes that, sooner or later, we would really hit it off. Obviously, that was not going to happen.
Instead of spending my three-week trip laughing and gossiping with those girls, I was now banned from ever speaking to them. The situation made me a little panicky, but I couldn’t focus on that at the moment – I had to find a place to sit. I must have looked as pitiful and lost as I felt, because one of the other girls in our group came over to me and invited me to sit with her and her friends. Relieved, I gladly accepted the invitation and made my way over to her table. That was the first enjoyable meal I had in the eastern hemisphere. Instead of making me uncomfortable, these people put me at ease – they were laid-back and kind and generous and a little silly, and we had a great time together. I ended up hanging out with those people for the rest of the trip, and that really made all the difference. I’m actually quite grateful to those three girls who so cruelly excluded me from their table – if it wasn’t for that act, I would have spent the entire three-week trip with them, and I would have been miserable.
It was from this singular event that I learned a valuable life lesson: it is easier to succeed in new situations if you enter them with a genuine sense of yourself. The uncertainty and apprehension that comes with flying to the other side of the world when you’re thirteen, with a bunch of people you don’t know – that fear led me to compromise my true self in an effort to ally myself with a group. That plan backfired, as it has every time I’ve idiotically attempted it since. New experiences should be opportunities for growth, but you cannot grow unless you fully understand where you already are. This I believe to be one of the most fundamental principles of my life, and, when I take care to remember it, it always serves me well. You cannot allow your true personality to hide out, or be a recluse in your own body – you must proclaim your individual presence to the world. It is only by confidently accepting yourself and allowing others the opportunity to make up their own mind about you – the true you – that you can live a full and satisfying life.
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