During my first therapy session, a common theme began to surface: I’ve had trouble with entering and maintaining friendships throughout my life. It didn’t come as a surprise, but that wasn’t the primary purpose for scheduling the therapy session. In fact, I’d planned to talk about my job or the stress I sometimes felt for not accomplishing my goals within my expected timeline. So when my Black, female therapist asked me to describe my closest friendships, the only thing that came to mind was the relationships I have with my immediate family members.
It dawned on me that making friends was no longer high on my priority list. Why was that? Why had so many of my friendships fizzled out? I set out on a mission to answer that question and to deeply dissect and understand some of the friendships I’d managed to make but ultimately abandoned over time. It was challenging and at times painful, dredging up old memories that transported me back in time. I had stories to tell, lessons to re-learn and share, and friendships to consider nurturing. But first, I had to get to the root of my friendships, or the very first lesson I had learned about making friends.
I made my very first friend, Tamia, in the second grade. We met while I was visiting the laundromat with my mom. Like me, Tamia was a short, plump, brown-skin girl who wore glasses, and her hair was often pulled up into two ponytails with a short curly bang that sat on her forehead—a hairstyle that had me in a chokehold, too.
While other girls at school wore jeans and graphic tees, me and Tamia often sported plaid, spaghetti strap dresses with crisp, white t-shirts underneath. Picture Lavender from Matilda, nerdy and with an air of expectancy. I looked like a teacher even before I was a teacher. That was us. It was as if our mothers wanted to make up for the confidence that we both lacked at the time. So, it was no surprise when we became friends.
Yet, there were differences. While we both wore glasses, Tamia was visually impaired, so her glasses were extremely thick, making her eyes appear larger than life. She would often use a white cane to find her away around. However, by the time we met, she was a pro, and what she lacked in vision she made up for in speaking. Boy, could she talk! I grew to love that about her because it complemented my rather shy and quiet nature.
It became a routine for me to venture over to Tamia’s house when we visited the laundromat. We talked about everything, especially the girls who bullied us at school. As you can imagine, we were two of the smartest girls in the class, and if anyone thought I was a know-it-all, Tamia had me beat. So, we received our fair share of bullying. Our social isolation was at the foundation of our friendship, and I was sure that we would be best friends forever.
But then, something changed. All of a sudden, the Tamia who engaged in class suddenly stopped raising her hand. The very girls who bullied us began to copy off her paper. Next, she started blowing me off during lunch and recess, opting to sit with the other girls who took her milk, ate off her plate, and practically ignored her. But when Saturday came, Tamia was right there waiting for me at the laundromat. It hurt, but at least I had a friend, right?
One day, I finally got up the nerve to approach her and her ‘friends’ during recess and ask if I could play tether ball with them. The girls deferred to Tamia, saying, “What do you think, Tamia? Should we let her play?”
“No,” Tamia said, “I don’t wanna play with no fat, tar baby.” She and her friends laughed loudly, and she followed them to another part of the playground, her cane moving briskly from side-to-side as she struggled to keep up. I was devastated. What did I do? Try as I might, I couldn’t find a reason, so I went about my way—back to being alone. This prompted one of the first lessons I learned about friendships: You are disposable, especially if a person finds their relationships with others to be more valuable.
In this case, Tamia found her relationship with the other girls to be more valuable than the one she had with me. They were popular and, to some extent, spared her from the bullying that had brought us together. She was sitting with the ‘cool’ kids. The self-preservation was real, and perhaps she had also secured some peace for herself.
In the end, I believe this experience laid the cornerstone for my friendships. I wanted them, but I understood that they could be fickle. I understood that I was considered an outcast as a smart, fat, dark-skinned know-it-all, and this marginalized me, even among other Black girls. Ultimately, this made me believe I wasn’t enough, and that if given the choice, no one would ever choose me. Unpacking this in therapy, I realized that my response had been to choose myself, and I had been doing that ever since.