In 1992, the summer after 8th grade, I went on a school trip to Germany. We spent three weeks in a small town near Cologne — a place that had developed a relationship with our German department’s lead teacher. Every two years, a group of 8th and 9th graders made the trip with a handful of teachers. Nearly two dozen of us made the trip, all of us having just finished 8th or 9th grade. living with a family, attending school with our exchange partners on some days, touring around to Brussels, Heidelberg, Bonn on other days.
I remember very little about the preparation for the trip. I was thirteen years old — the same age my son Owen is now.
I remember that our German teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t go that year — and so the main chaperone was a math teacher who happened to be from Germany, and her young adult daughter, who had recently dyed her hair black, much to the math teacher’s chagrin.
I remember that nearly every kid on that trip had an LL Bean windbreaker. Every city we visited, we all lined up in front of a landmark for a photograph — two rows of red, green, teal, yellow. A self-imposed uniform.
I remember shockingly little about the landmarks themselves — or anything in the country, for that matter. I don’t know that I remembered them even weeks after returning home.
I remember the drive from the airport in Frankfurt to tiny Engelskirchen, and staring out the window of my host family’s car, dazed and exhausted and wondering how to be polite when I could barely understand a word.
I remember my host mom laughing again and again that the German word for corn sounded like “mice,” and of course I wouldn’t want to eat mice.
I remember a party at one of the host family’s houses where I let the language wash over me and let a loneliness I’d never felt before wash over me, too. A child in a big family, I was known to everyone all the time; thousands of miles from my parents and my sister and my little brothers, no one knew me at all. That party ended with a sing-along of “Hey, Jude” and I sang, too, and heard my own voice again and remembered that I was still alive and part of the world, after so much silence. People turned and looked at me, and I was pretty sure that whatever they were saying was German for “you have a good voice” which was at least a familiar sentiment and made me feel like me again for a moment.
I was entranced by the group of of 6 cool kids who seemed to rule that trip. Ringleader Eaghmon — impish, charming, rebellious. His taciturn friend Zack, who I am pretty sure owned only Grateful Dead t-shirts. And then the girls: Lead girl was Emily, who had button-fly jeans and wore the perfume “Beautiful” and talked casually about her period.
I was the seventh. I wanted to be the seventh. I must have just dripped with need, just reeked of desire for their approval. They let me sit with them in the back of the bus to Cologne. We would smoke cigarettes when we split up on outings. We would roll our eyes at the chaperones’ instructions. We stood together in the German high school gym and ironically swayed to the band playing “Winds of Change” for the 10th time that week. At a little town fair, Eaghmon found a single beer and we passed it around, getting a few sips each.
We gave those boys all the power — the girls shifting and jockeying for position not because we really liked them, but because their attention was the only way we knew how to measure ourselves. So when my exchange partner’s boyfriend kissed me, I let him, even though I knew better than to be a party to his infidelity. Attention from boys was the only currency accepted. I didn’t know you could opt out of this particular economy.
I was always looking over my shoulder, waiting to get caught, waiting to get in trouble but always doing the bad thing so that I could stay cool. And it worked, until it didn’t.
I felt it in the air: a shift in the energy. A faint disgust when I spoke. The next day, sitting in the second to last row, I felt it again and I looked over and saw D, the girl who was my closest friend of them all, pantomiming a choking motion in my direction, and that’s when I knew I was really, truly out.
I went back to the front of the bus.
For a long time, what I remembered most was the sting of being shunned. It lasted the whole summer. Back at home, when my parents went on a trip to New England, I stayed with family friends because I was supposed to go with a friend to Lollapalooza to see Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sure enough, a few days before the show, the friend called and said she was taking D instead. I stayed home, sitting at the kitchen table, feeling even more alone than I had in Germany a few weeks earlier, more hurt than I had ever been before.
Now I notice different things.
My older brother, who lived on his own in Florida, mailed me a Lollapalooza t-shirt and told me I probably wouldn’t have had such a great time anyway — it was really overrated.
My mother didn’t say, “You’re better than this.” Or, “For God’s sake, try a little dignity.” Surely she must have thought it.
But mostly I think about the kids at the front of the bus; the kids who were smart or secure enough to not have even bothered trying to join the cool crowd. They were so much kinder than me. Did they care that I’d tried to distance myself from them to show my cool kid bonafides? Did they know I was too weak to even dream I could reject the system?
They just quietly let me sit with them again, let me line up next to them at the landmarks. They met my shame with grace. That’s worth remembering.