The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.
My daughter will graduate from high school next month, the second high school she has attended. She has a great circle of friends in both places, great academics, work she loves and memories of being the new kid. Although the change has been great, the learning experience that “being the new kid” provides will be most beneficial throughout her life. I know. I was the “new kid” five times in three years. That’s a lot of introductions, cracking the social codes and making friends for a young teenager. I learned how to start over, condense my life story to a paragraph and enter a room full of strangers without committing a social faux pas. It was a “great experience” I could pass along to my children.
My high schools were large, small, private and public. There were Americans in each of them, every race, religion and nationality. In one, English was the second language, in another, military rank created the social order. I rode buses to several schools, walked to another and lived in several dorms for a year. Each school presented its own social obstacles, academic emphasis and “new kid” hazing. Each new school presented the classic “first day” nervousness and stress. The perceived benefits were few while I attended and like many experiences became more valuable as life unfolded. I learned that roots are important and yet you carry them with you. I learned you can have friends close by and maintain friendships with hundreds of miles separating you. I learned that academics can center on the same subjects with vastly different curriculums. But most important, I learned how being the “new kid” doesn’t last long because at some point, everybody is the “new kid.”
We moved from Paris, France to Stuttgart, Germany after a brief six months in France. I had learned to navigate the multi-building campus at Paris American High School with ease. I knew where the cafeteria was, the menu for each week and where the locker room was in the huge gym. I had friends who shared slumber parties, lunch tables and homework assignments. We giggled a lot and shared hopes and dreams of the American teenager of the ’60’s. They taught me readiness. Fathers of military dependents get transferred frequently. New orders give brief adjustment time and often, the father left before the family, who followed after packing their belongings and saying goodbye. Although friendships would survive with distance, they were ready to move and start over at a moment’s notice.
I was fortunate with the move from France to Germany. Most of my new friends in Paris moved to the same area in Germany. Attending a new school was easier because there were friends from Paris to share the experience. We compared notes when we met on the weekends. Three of us attended different schools in Germany yet managed to find time for roller skating, swimming and hiking German trails on the weekend. We still shared slumber parties, we still giggled a lot and we all made new friends. They helped me realize friendships can continue despite the miles between friends. Reunited in yet another school, we shared homerooms, English assignments and Home Ec. We went to the local “gasthaus” and Oktober Fest with older siblings, went to movies and the AYA (American Youth Association) dances. We rode buses to school and gossiped about the latest Beatles trivia. Those friends taught me to savor the moment, to live fully today and enjoy the present. Tomorrow may bring change, but we were together today and we made each day count.
I had a different experience when I changed to my fourth high school. This time there were no familiar friends or even family to ease my transition. This new school was in a different country, away from all of them. I was on my own, living at a boarding school where German was spoken at every meal and kids from all continents shared rooms down the hall. Whether privilege or punishment, this change in schools presented new challenges I hadn’t dreamed about when I wished to “live away” at age 13. Suddenly, I learned I could live in a house with 40 teenaged girls who spoke different languages than mine. I learned I could succeed academically without my parents’ reminders to finish homework. I learned I could be accepted in an international social group, sharing experiences that would make my mother cringe had she known. They taught me that change was possible and positive, that there was another world outside of America and that teenagers shared similar concerns everywhere in the world. I learned I could be separate from family and through trial and error, I could make good decisions on my own.
The “new kid” status changed at my last school. I returned to my hometown after three years away. I was a “new kid” with my former classmates and friends, back “home” in the US. I returned a different girl, to a group who had no idea of who I was, where I had been or what I had experienced. They were different, too. Older, more confident, more knowledgeable about social issues, and more experienced in life in the US. Most had lived in the same town since elementary school and knew all the faces in their small high school. Friendships were cement solid, grown together throughout their early high school years. Although they looked familiar, lived in their same house, they were as different from the person they had been at 13 as I was. It was a time of wary reconnection. I went to the same church, library and grocery store yet it seemed different from the town I had left. My school was American, I had the same teachers that my siblings had and we lived in the same house we had left three years earlier. I learned that you never “return” home. Different experiences, places lived and new histories prevent you from “picking up where you left off.” I did make new friends, I reconnected with former classmates and I earned my diploma. I shared confidences and dreams and developed friendships that continue today. I recognize many names on Facebook but have no memory of many of their recollections, I wasn’t there at the time. But, I learned that moving on is better for me, to be a “new kid” is easier than being “the returned” and that you have to look ahead for your future rather than dwell on the past.
I know we are the “new kid” throughout our lives, the new employee, the new roommate, the new neighbor, the new student. I know what my daughter experienced and the confidence given her for the next move, when she is the “new kid” once again. I hope she carries her friendships with her as she looks forward to her future. I hope she recognizes the value of being the “new kid” and shares her positive experiences with the “new kids” in her life.