“How was it at the nut-free table today, Savanna?” Our youngest of three had just begun elementary school. Although we were all collectively excited by her new experience as a 1st grader, it was the first school that she had ever attended that allowed students to bring meals that included nuts.
I had had a brief email exchange with the school nurse in the week prior. She reminded me to send Savanna with an Epi-pen (in case of an emergency) and also advised that the lunchroom had a nut-free table. “She’ll always have a place to sit where she feels comfortable, safe and not alone.”
Savanna replied to my question with enthusiasm. “Oh, I had so much fun, Mommy! There were two other first graders with me and we even sat with fourth and fifth graders at the nut-free table!” In that moment, I couldn’t help feeling amused. Somehow there was an upside to having a life-threatening allergy—it meant an automatic place to sit at lunch with instant friends who shared an invisible difference in common.
“How’d it go at lunch, E?” I tried my best to express interest without revealing any hint of underlying stress. Ethan had just his second week in the 6th grade which meant starting fresh at the middle school. Per protocol, it was time for students to choose with whom they wanted to sit with at lunch for the remainder of the school year. The tables were the kind that had eight seats attached, not benches, so the membership would be fixed. The pressure of such a choice just sounded incredibly stressful to me. There wasn’t even a nut-free option, I noted briefly, thinking of Savanna for the future.
Our eleven-year old looked up at me, hesitated, and then replied. “It was okay. I got to sit with a few of my friends but then a few others I don’t know joined us. No biggie, though.” I was relieved to hear he had managed through one of the more difficult pre-teen social experiences seemingly unscathed. After a couple of minutes, I decided to press a bit. “Curious. Did everyone find a place to sit?” He looked up at me with what seemed to be at least a fleeting expression of guilt. “Well, not everyone finds someone to sit with…..and then once the table is filled you can’t even invite someone. There’s always a couple of students that end up sitting alone at a extra few empty tables.” I left the conversation hoping that if there were an available seat, it would occur to our one-fingered son to invite someone left alone.
This past month Savanna and I kicked off our DHIFI “Kids Flaunt” contest by speaking in several schools. Currently running in four states (NY, NJ, CA and IL), but hopefully more in the coming years, the contest is run in partnership with Scholastic, Inc. and requires 4th grade students to write an essay inspired by the DHIFI theme, “The things that make me different make me, me.” Students are encouraged to share essays with one another with a goal of teaching both self-acceptance and empathy in a classroom environment.
I thought it was perfect timing for Savanna to join me during my presentations to promote this year’s contest. Not only was she the same age as the participants, but Savanna could reach them in a way I couldn’t —by sharing her invisible differences such as her allergies, asthma and being adopted. From the first moment at the first school we visited, she was a natural. “You might all think my Mom and brothers have a harder life than mine, but you’re all wrong!” She paused for effect. “The scariest part of what we deal with is my life-threatening nut allergy. So you see, you never really know what people are going through, no matter what they look like.” I beamed with pride.
It was also at that same school that I recall the students’ common and typical reaction to first seeing me. We were meeting in the cafeteria and, as the students filed in, some began to note with shock the one-fingered woman with shortened forearms. Even as I started to speak, some seemed confused about whether they should stare at me or my Power Point slides. After a minute I felt Savanna’s hand grab mine and she glanced up at me with a purposeful smile, clearly her own protective instinct taking over. In that moment, my heart swelled. In fact, this scene was not limited of course to our presentation together. Savanna’s life has been filled from her earliest memories with people of all ages staring at us. She often grabs hold of me or puts her arm around Ethan or Charlie, as if to say with pride, “You can stare, but I don’t care!”
But aside from my own daughter’s reaction, the cafeteria experience had me thinking a lot. How many other students get the opportunity to benefit organically from a life at home with a sibling or other family member that is different? I can’t help but think about last year’s winner of our Kids Flaunt contest, Callia Kanaaneh, whose brother Tim has autism. My favorite line in Callia’s essay was, “A 9-year-girl like me might not want to flaunt something like this but I can’t keep my brother locked up so no one knows about him. I want him to SHINE BRIGHTLY! If you have a problem with that, then you try to take my place in the world! All I want is to have the best for my big brother.”
Yet I know that for every Callia and Savanna, there are many more kids who lack the experience to recognize and resist the forces and anxieties of social exclusion. Which leads to the big question: What exactly does it take to ensure that our children, when faced with a scene involving social pressure and exclusion, will choose kindness and inclusion?
Perhaps the answer will come from the kids themselves. I recently learned about an amazing new App called, “Sit with Us,” that was developed by Natalie Hampton, a 16-year-old. Hampton was inspired to create it after she ate alone her entire 7th grade year in middle school. Her isolation even led to her being targeted by bullies. Sit With Us helps students who have difficulty finding a place to sit in the school cafeteria locate a welcoming group to eat lunch. The App allows students to designate themselves as “ambassadors” and invite anyone alone to join them at tables with vacancies. Now a junior, Hampton is thriving socially.
One can only imagine how many students across the country would love to be able to sign up confidentially for a guaranteed place to sit in their respective school lunchrooms. I started to promote Sit With Us at every opportunity. Yet, as I faced the students in that first cafeteria with Savanna, it occurred to me that the App depended on a critical component – students willing to become ambassadors. It requires courageous students willing to open up their hearts and, of course, their tables, often defying social criticism or judgment from others.
To come full circle, all of this underscores why I feel so passionately about reaching students to participate in our Kids Flaunt contest. The more students are challenged to embrace their own differences and those of their peers, the sooner they will learn to stand up for others. Or, perhaps invite them simply to sit.