Imagine you’re one of those kids in high school whose only goal in life is to get through the day unnoticed and un-picked-upon.
And now imagine that you’re sitting in the school cafeteria, alone at your table as usual, and the Homecoming Queen picks up her lunch tray, gets up from the popular-kid table, and walks over to sit alone with you at your table.
What do you do?
I saw it happen one day when I was a high school teacher supervising the lunch room, and the kid did exactly what you’d think he’d do. He went all “deer-in-the-headlights.”
Queenie introduced herself and held out her hand to shake. The kid hesitated, checking to see if she had a needle or a tarantula in her hand, and then he gingerly reached out and shook her hand. But only for a second, because – let’s face it – this was the Homecoming Queen whose hand he was touching. And teenage queens don’t touch pariahs without a squeal or an “Ee-w-w-w!” He waited for the ax to fall, because there had to be some kind of cruel joke behind this.
The goons and buffoons at the popular-kid table reacted as you would expect them to react. They hooted and howled, but Queenie waved them off.
She sat through the lunch period, talking with Nobody-Boy.
I watched the whole thing with rapt attention, because I knew the girl, and she was everything you would hope a high school Homecoming Queen would be. Mary was not just attractive; she was also an honor-roll student and a star soccer player. And, it seemed to me from my association with her, she was also a thoughtful, caring young lady.
Still, the whole thing smelled of a setup to me. As lunchroom supervisor, it was part of my job to sniff out any hint of bullying, so when lunch period ended and Nobody-Boy shuffled off to disappear among the hallway crowd, I walked over and smiled at Mary. “Is he a friend of yours?” I asked.
“He is now,” she said.
She explained that she had watched that boy sit all by himself every day, eating with his eyes glued to the tabletop as if he were afraid to be noticed. She felt sad for him, and so, today, she decided to sit with him instead of with her usual group.
“They all seemed to get a big kick out of it,” I said, nodding toward the popular-kid table, still not convinced that her motives were pure.
She waved them off. “Oh, that’s just the way they are until they get to know somebody.”
I didn’t press the point, but the next day I noticed that Mary sat with Nobody-Boy once again. The popular-kid table hooted at her and called for her to come back and join them, but she waved them off. They didn’t hoot as long this time. They were probably wondering how their own status would be affected if they encouraged a fallen queen to rejoin them.
The third day was the same, but this time Nobody-Boy walked out into the hall with Mary at the end of the period. One or two of the popular kids joined them, and I followed them down the hall. The popular kids chatted with Mary and ignored Nobody-Boy, who walked silently next to them, hoping for nothing more than to avoid being thumped in the head or to have his books spilled from his arms into the crowded hallway.
On the fourth day in the lunchroom, Mary walked over to Nobody-Boy’s table, but she didn’t sit down. She chatted with him for a moment or two, and then she gestured back toward the popular-kid table.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Nobody-Boy got up from his seat, picked up his tray, and followed the Homecoming Queen back to the popular-kid table and sat down at the end. There was a brief, awkward moment as Mary introduced Nobody-Boy to everybody at the popular-kid table and they did their best to ignore him.
But nobody thumped him on the head. And nobody spilled his books into the hallway.
Over the next few weeks, a remarkable transformation took place in Nobody-Boy. He no longer skulked down the hallway. He no longer brushed the wall with his shoulder as his eyes scoured the floor a yard ahead of his next step.
Now he walked down the middle of the hallway with his head held up. I can’t say that he became popular, but he stopped being nobody.
When Mary graduated several months later with honors, I told her that I thought the most honorable thing she had done in her four years of high school was to risk her popularity just to help a struggling young man get through the day.
She shrugged and smiled. “You know,” she said, “people always talk about peer pressure as if it’s a bad thing. That’s because they think it only goes in one direction.”
It was a royal lesson from a girl admired by everybody who ever met her – for good reason.