I must have been reasonably self-aware as a kid, because I’m pretty sure I was in the early stages of primary school when I figured out that I couldn’t make friends.
When you’re a kid, you look for easy excuses to explain away anything that’s difficult to understand. I had ginger hair, so at first this was easy: I looked different so I WAS different. The only fly in the ointment was a slightly older kid in the upper end of the same class who seemed to make friends with comparative ease: so it wasn’t the hair.
I came from a single parent family and didn’t have a dad, so that was the first big excuse I used to explain away my lack of class popularity. I went to a primary school in Ramsgate that I have now come to understand was full of the middle-class kids of teachers, doctors and other noteworthy professions that – at the time – were considered acceptable. In my class, not having a dad was a genuinely unusual situation (though I’ve since discovered that in several neighbouring schools it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as unusual).
Once I’d cheerfully managed to ignore all the kids who I felt were judging me for this, I moved my focus to the difference in wealth. A lot of these kids had the latest Nikes, I had Hi Tech. They had designer backpacks and lunchboxes, I didn’t. In time, this felt like such an imbalance that I managed to persuade my incredibly hard-working mum to GET me a set of the best stuff (that I didn’t really want) in order to help me fit in.
It didn’t work.
To be clear about my mum, she would use her wages to feed me, put clothes on my back AND get me the things I was actually interested in….which seemed to be the sort of things other kids didn’t care about: books (but not cool books), odd computers games (but not the ones all the other kids were buying), action figures (occasionally these spark the odd swap conversation, but nothing groundbreaking).
Then I became fixated on alcohol. Really fixated on it. My mum and nan both drank in pubs while everyone else’s parents apparently ‘enjoyed a glass of wine at home with dinner’. My family were from the east end of London and now lived predominantly in Ramsgate: they did their drinking, their socialising AND their fighting in the pubs. It was a pub culture, something completely normal in 80s but not necessarily normal for the school that I went to.
However, only I knew the difference…and as I wasn’t talking, it couldn’t have been THAT.
Finally, I realised that the main difference between others kids and me was the fact that friendship was really no big deal to them…but it was increasingly unfathomable to me. I would listen to an exchange between two kids in the playground and then in some way attempt to be the THIRD kid in the group, whichever one I felt was missing based on all the movies I’d seen. If the two kids were fighting, I’d try to be the peacemaker, if they were talking over stuff I knew about, I’d try to impress them with my knowledge of the subject, often blissfully unaware that they just wanted me to shut up and go away.
I was the only kid I knew who actively REHEARSED conversations before I went out onto the playground and tried them out for real. I would even walk past a group, casually glance back and then hurry over, going ‘Wait until you hear THIS-‘ before telling them something I’d thought about at home the night before.
Friendship was something I simply couldn’t crack. There WERE exceptions to this rule but generally these happened when two best friends split up and were each competing to find a new best friend before the other one: I met my one-time best friend this way.
Then I moved on to a non-selective secondary school and suddenly a lot became clear.
- I was overweight…..but so were a lot of other kids.
- I had ginger hair….but I wasn’t alone.
- I was from a working class, single parent family….but now I was in the majority.
- I was really bad at talking to girls….but equally bad at talking to boys.
The situation went away for a while when the only other kid from my primary school was in my first class at secondary: his best mate had actually become friends with my last (and only) friend at primary so we were sort of thrown together. He came round my house every Saturday and we played computer games: I felt normal…for a while.
Unfortunately, the creeping feeling that wouldn’t quite go away returned in spades when he started to make additional friends and I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there were people around me all the time: I wasn’t skulking around the corners of the playground or standing in radiant pools of silence…but it felt like I was.
…and that’s really the point, isn’t it? By the end of school, I had a new best friend who was twenty years older than me and only became my friend because he needed me to show him how to use a computer. After that, I joined a guy I worked with in his own social circle that consisted of a group who had around a decade on me: these were all great people but – again – I couldn’t quite solidify them in my head as my people.
I’m now a fully grown adult – go me – and fully aware that the ability to make and sustain friendships is not one I have: apart from my amazing wife and family, the core group I have around me are the friends who make all the effort, the ones who message me, the ones who call me, the ones who put up with all my silence and continuous date-dodging because they understand that nothing really comes easily for me.
On a wide social scale, I’m the guy that put the smaller school group back together ten years after we all left school (because, in a strange way, I’m the one who never left school and often feel like I’m still there). I’m also the one who organised the twenty-five year school reunion and stood there thinking ‘these people never knew me’ while I chatted along quite happily, fuelled by.red wine.
It’s just the way I am.
Would I like to be different? More confident? More relaxed? Actually, yes. Wouldn’t we all?