Sunday, June 12, 2016

Dear Hallee: My Lonely Birthday Story

Dear Hallee,

I heard about your birthday party, and my heart broke for you. I'm 40 years old. Twenty five years ago, like you, I had the world's loneliest birthday party. Nobody except my mom, my baby sister, and the grandparents I was living with showed up. I was heart broken.

I was a freshman in high school, attending my first year in a private Catholic school in the town of Ennis, Texas. The kids in my class grew up together. Their families knew one another. I was an outsider. A public school transfer who caught them all by surprise because I was excelling in the classes without even seeming to try. I asked questions in religious education classes when everyone else just wanted out of there. I was interested in learning. They were interested in partying. I was different on so many levels and they weren't shy about letting me know it.

I was picked on for the length of my skirt (it was too long to suit them). I was picked on for my brains (I was too smart for their comfort). I was picked on for being poor (most of them were well off children of business owners). And the list went on and on.

When it came time for my birthday in the middle of that semester, I decided I would invite them all to my birthday party. I saved my meager money and bought my own birthday cake, my own ice cream, and paid for the movies we would watch. I was excited. I was sure that at least the three kids I called my friends would show up. I was crushed when not one person came.

As tears rolled down my cheeks - it was rare for me to cry - my mom took me on a drive. Catholic school was expensive. My grandparents were paying the tuition out of their retirement. The one thing my mom told me before I accepted their offer to send me to Catholic school was that I couldn't quit in the middle of the year. I had to see it through to the end, to honor the investment in uniforms and tuition and books my grandparents were making. And those were the terms I'd agreed to when I'd accepted their offer.

But as we drove along the backroads, my mother changed her mind. "It's okay if you want to come home, honey. I'll understand."

She couldn't stand the pain she saw me going through that day. I'd never mentioned a word about the bullying, or the rejections I'd been dealing with. But she saw the tears and she knew there was more to the story than the birthday party. Now I had a choice: run, or stay. Give up, or fight back. That day, I chose to fight back.

"They're not going to beat me. They're not going to make me leave," I told her.

All weekend I thought about how to handle this situation, and what I should do in response. On Monday, I brought the sheet cake I'd purchased for the party and the ice cream with me. During my homeroom period, I served slices of my birthday cake to each and every person with the biggest smile I could put on my face.

That decision marked a turning point for me. I went from being bullied and picked on to assuming my role as a leader. I began to show others by my example in how I handled things how to deal with the bullies and the mean kids in life. I went from having two friends to having a bunch of friends by the end of the year. I made friends with the misfits and the kids that nobody else cared to make friends with and I stuck by them because I understood what that was like.

My next birthday party was the best birthday party. I was surrounded by people who were there because they genuinely liked me and wanted to be there, not because their parents said they had to be there. I'd created a tribe for myself, created a place to belong, by taking care of the other outcasts and giving them a safe place to be.

That birthday may have been your worst one, Hallee, but if you use this birthday to help motivate you to remember to reach out for and take care of all those other people out there who don't quite fit in or belong somewhere, your next one may well be the best birthday ever. You won't have to spend it alone. You'll be surrounded by people who are loyal to you, and are eager to be there just for the chance to celebrate the life you've helped create for them.

One day, like me, you may look back on that birthday as the best birthday ever. Because that birthday changed your life, and led you to become a better version of yourself than you were before it. Their choice not to show up ended up being the best birthday present they could have given me, and I hope you'll someday feel the same way about the people who didn't show up for your birthday, too.

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