Most of our moves occurred during the summer, so I usually had the benefit of starting the new school year at the same time as everyone else. This meant everyone was meeting people, learning classrooms and figuring out teachers. But while everyone else generally had some familiar faces and places in the mix, I was coping with an environment that was totally new. But at least everyone didn’t immediately know that I was an outsider.
The real terror of starting at a new school came not so much from figuring out the “where” and “who” of the school day but the “how” of local slang, traditions and customs. It was here that you could easily get marked as a weirdo, a dummy. Or worse, wind up red-faced or bloody nosed.
For instance, I have a memory of getting on my school bus for the first time at a new school. I walked toward the back of the bus and sat in the first empty seat I encountered. Soon after I sat down it was clear I’d done something wrong. First there was a gasp, a laugh. I could catch snippets of conversation:
“… wrong side …”
“He doesn’t know …”
Soon the chatter works its way to the front of the bus. Heads pop up to look at me. Finally the bus loudmouth pops up near the front of the bus.
“Hey kid. Yeah, you. Are you a boy or a girl?”
Me, terrified: “Boy.”
“Well you are looking like a girl today.” Laughter through the bus.
I have nothing. Eventually things quiet down for the next salvo.
“You know why?”
“Because you are sitting on the girls side of the bus.”
This comment is followed by laughter throughout the bus. I turn crimson.
I’m sure plenty of first graders have made this mistake on the first day of school without garnering much attention. But at the time, I was a fifth grader—and a big kid too—so the assumption was that I should know better, like all the other fifth graders. So, I looked like a dummy. Or a weirdo. Either way. Not a good start to the first week of school.
As a perennial new kid, that’s the type of thing you worried about. Using a word that wasn’t cool. Asking about a new thing you’ve heard people mention only to have them treat you like you just said you’d never heard of Santa Claus. Or seeing someone doing something you considered wrong and finding out that everyone is cool with that here.
Not all of this was unique to life as an Army brat, of course. Other kids did awkward things and got made fun of too. But when you moved every year, instances of this kind happened a little more often. You learned to tread lightly and keep your mouth shut while you tried to figure things out from context. (Which had its own pitfalls!)