In my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic,” I include this recommendation as number 25: “Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.” I didn’t just parrot this conviction after hearing someone else say it; I believe it absolutely. Logic tells me the statement must also apply to me, not just to other people, but sometimes my heart is not so sure. This was one of those days.
In French class today—a lifelong-learning course filled with retirees—I returned to second grade. I experienced again how it felt when I was seven and knew I had become unacceptable—after six years of confidence and joy. Since second grade, I have retained the fear that I am insufficient, will be rejected after a brief veneer of belonging. This fear has possessed my life. I have known where it originated, in spite of my difficulty in overcoming it. But today I didn’t simply understand why I felt insufficient. I once again became the essence of unacceptable, rejected, unique among others in not knowing how to fit in.
What I observed is almost certainly not a true reflection of my classmates’ motivations and actions, but I’ll share what I experienced, filtered through my negative state of mind.
In the French classroom, the woman who used to sit next to me now rarely acknowledges me, and did not do so at all today. I said “bonjour” to a pair crossing my path as they were finding their places. One perfunctorily returned the greeting. The second looked at me as if to say, “Who let her in?” and continued to her seat without speaking to me. Clumps of women found their seats and huddled together, conversing before class. I sat by myself wondering, “Is my French so poor that I have earned ostracism? Am I disagreeable in some way that I don’t understand?” Tears assembled, almost ready to slip past my lower lids. I wasn’t just remembering second grade; I was there again: unworthy, an outcast, alone.
Yes, today a man in our French class did greet me in a friendly manner. A woman classmate who is also a neighbor is always pleasant and today asked me if she would be able to ride with me sometimes, and I did exchange a few words with a couple of other women who, while evidently much more acceptable to the class powerbase than I am, are nevertheless not full members of that oligarchy. The substantial French-class oligarchy is for me the senior version of my elementary-school classmate Hannah and her court, whom I still hear and believe fifty-five years after I last shared a class with them. I believe them because, perhaps through the effectiveness of self-fulfilling prophecy, I continue to find their scornful assessments true.
If my confidence and self-respect hadn’t been rocky to begin with, I would not have interpreted my French classmates’ behavior as confirmation of my lowly state. But the message today seemed to be that I have been right all along, for the sixty-one years since I was in second grade: I am unacceptably different and deficient. I reinforced my belief that in any setting with other people, sooner or later my fatal flaws will become known. And because I don’t understand what these flaws are—merely know they exist—I do not know how to overcome them and earn ongoing welcome among those whose world I share.
Ironically, in French class we are reading the short novel Aliocha, by Henri Troyat, who based the story on his own childhood experiences. Alexis, whose Russian nickname is Aliocha, is the novel’s central character. Alexis and his parents fled Russia for France after the Bolshevik Revolution. Throughout the book, we follow Alexis’ struggle to feel truly French, truly accepted. Even in his happiest times, the doubts try to surface: “De nouveau, Alexis se découvrait en porte à faux dans un monde construit par les autres et pour les autres.”—”Once again, Alexis found himself at odds with a world made by others and for others.” On this occasion, Alexis quickly regains his sense of belonging in his current happy setting, with his best friend and his best friend’s parents. Except for the three summers when I had a best friend, Louise, at camp, I found myself “at odds with a world made by others and for others” at summer camp. I also seemed to be trespassing in others’ worlds in junior-high and high school, and often in my own neighborhood. As happened today, the exceptions—those who included me at least to some extent—whispered, while the signs of my expulsion from society screamed.
My life has been and continues to be vastly blessed. But when, and how, am I finally going to graduate from second grade?
A question I can answer is this: What is the gift here? Because of my own experiences—even my mistaken interpretation of others’ attitudes and actions—I have empathy for all who are bullied or otherwise see themselves as outsiders. I also have a responsibility to help change our we-they, insider-outcast society into one that recognizes and embraces this truth: We are all one.
 Henri Troyat, Aliocha (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1991), 90.