“Go Play With Your Friends!”

“Meagan, what are you doing over here by yourself?”
The daycare worker stood over three-year-old me as I crouched by a wall, well away from the groups of laughing children. I remember holding a toy giraffe (which I was pretending was a pony), and babbling happily to myself, weaving some far-fetched tale or other to while the hours away. I raised my head reluctantly but obediently; I was loath to interrupt my highly-enjoyable game, but I was a relatively respectful child.
She waited.
“Well? What are you doing?”
“Playing.”
“Put that down and go play with your friends.”
It’s astounding, really, the level of clarity this memory still holds for me. My head is full of fuzzy childhood memories, but this one stands out. If I concentrate, I can still feel the cynical amusement her comment had provoked—an amusement that was distinctly unlike what a child ought to feel.
“I don’t have any friends.”
How could she not know this? Was she not paying attention when kids turned their backs as I approached? Did she miss the very public incident when a toy crate was placed directly in my path in the hopes that I’d trip?
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, go make some then.”
As she walked away, my child self felt absolutely nothing but relief: I could get back to my giraffe—ahem, pony—without further annoyances.
What I find remarkable about this memory is not the underlying theme of social isolation and bullying. Bullying had tapered off almost to nothing when I went to grade school, I was extraordinarily lucky, but daycare was somewhat different. I faced relatively little direct confrontation—I was certainly never abused or put in real danger—but social exclusion was at its height. No, what I always dwell upon is how very unaffected I was by all of it. Kids are all supposed to crave a peer group, but for whatever reason my rejected social overtures didn’t phase me. I didn’t try very hard, and once I realized it was basically futile, I retreated to the safety and endless entertainment that could be found inside my own head. I was aware on some level that this made me different, but I simply don’t remember being bothered in any way by it.
I was not a socially starved child, generally speaking. I was forever pestering my elder sister to play with me, enjoyed the company of adults immensely, and had a huge, welcoming extended family to keep me company during gatherings. If I had the opportunity to play one-on-one with accepting kids my own age, I took it quite contentedly.
Despite this, my introversion seemed to be a source of ongoing anxiety for the adults in my life. Daycare workers, teachers, consultants, and all manner of others concerned themselves with my social development, no doubt worried that a disabled child left to her own devices would morph into a stunted mess. Their fears weren’t entirely unfounded, and my isolation did facilitate certain quirks it took me a bit too long to eliminate, but my intelligence, contentment, and overall growth didn’t feel impeded by my apparently-tragic lack of friends. At least, that’s how I tend to view it.
Frequently labeled antisocial and stubborn, I noticed that my personal preferences were considered partially or wholly irrelevant. This is true for many children, I think, especially when they grow up surrounded by people who fear they’ll turn out wrong, somehow. I don’t know that any adult stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, Meagan was at peace with not having many friends, and that she’d make them when she was ready. I’m not sure anyone recognized that introversion and antisocial behaviour are worlds apart.
As I grew older, I did begin to amass a very small, very selective group of friends. I didn’t always choose adults’ perceptions of ideal candidates—that is, I did not necessarily gravitate toward popular kids. In fact, I tended to avoid them, and they likewise avoided me unless they thought I’d give them the answers to the homework that had just been assigned. (My studiousness was attractive to just about everyone in my classes over the years, meaning everyone wanted to sit next to me inside but scattered at recess time.) The steady friends I did have were a bit like me: introverted, slightly eccentric, and entirely content with being both. Throughout my childhood, all the way up to middle school, the refrain continued: play with your friends. Be more social. Don’t just stand by that wall all the time. Go play with these girls and those guys and that group over there.
Sometimes, the concern, which I know to be benign and not entirely misguided, got a little out of hand. Fellow students were ordered to play with me (please never do this to any child), and didn’t always hide their resentment over it. Others would allow me into their group briefly, but were just as happy as I was to see me go. Probably, if I’d tried harder, been chattier, been more charming, I’d have made progress, but it all came down to the inescapable facts: they didn’t really want me around, and I was in no mood to waste energy trying to persuade them otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong: I nursed my moments of loneliness, especially as a teenager. Sometimes it seemed as though having more friends would be an express line to a better life, within the confines of school, anyway. When I became a bit more popular in middle school and my social group got larger, I welcomed opportunities to experience new people and activities. When I got to university and was totally alone again, I felt hollow and far more desolate than I’d ever felt as an excluded child.
On the whole, however, I don’t believe my personal growth was much improved by the constant commands to be more outgoing. The social butterfly wings don’t suit me, and they never really have. I applaud the efforts of those who cared for me; I know they were aware of the risks inherent in an isolated, sheltered child, and I see the effects of this isolation in other blind people. Some of them can’t shake a pronounced awkwardness, even as an adult, and I’m grateful to have navigated that particular minefield fairly successfully. I owe much of that to the efforts of the adults closest to me, who were just trying to make me into the best person I could be.
These things aside, I believe my intense introversion, so often judged and found wanting, shielded me from so much of the drama and misery that are youth’s trademark. Other kids were worrying endlessly about who was out and who was in, but I was busy reading yet another book. Other children at daycare were fighting over toys while I sat safely in a corner, knowing my giraffe-pony was mine, all mine. My ambivalence toward my peers wasn’t always an asset, and it definitely got me into trouble a time or two, but it also insulated me from a lot of pain and self-doubt I really didn’t need. Childhood and teenage years are difficult for anyone, but I had separate challenges that meant I would have had precious little time to waste on being lonely anyway. I was way too concerned with a mental illness I did not understand and a disability I didn’t always know how to deal with to cry my eyes out over whether the girls on the tarmac would let me skip rope with them.
Today, I’m still an unapologetic introvert, though with far more friends and a much richer social life. I’m no longer content with total exclusion, and I spend way too much time these days agonizing over things I would have thought silly and worthless as a child. I like my life, and I like who I’ve become.
Still, once in awhile I appeal to that three-year-old I once was. I ask her to lend me her shamelessness and her practicality. I ask her to remind me that I can be my own best friend when the need arises, and that what other people think, well, it doesn’t always have to matter.
Don’t worry, introverts. You’re okay.

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8 thoughts on ““Go Play With Your Friends!”

  1. I appreciate your honesty in your posts. As a blind child who had similar experiences growing up and maturing, I value the time and thought you put into understanding and extracting lessons from life. 🙂

  2. As far as whether I was social or not so social, at playgroup when I was very small I made some friends but never really had any inkling that I was blind this realization came later on. when I was at daycare I never really socialized all that much as was under supervision a fair amount of the time. Move onto kinda I did make a few friends to an extent but not major. I spent a lot of time on the swings when outside I didn’t do much and I still had no idea about the fact I was blind until I started learning braille at home but my first experience of learning to touch type was at kinda on an old manual typewriter. Primary school I made a few friends early on although during this time in grad4 in particular I had quite a lot of sick days and was in and out of hospital due to having had a kidney transplant which I thought was going to improve my life but it sidelined me more than kept me healthy Again I had my select group of friends who were really nice to me. The segregation from my peers really started in secondary school as I was being bullied and speaking up would lead to me getting into trouble so I never sat with anybody just in case I was lead astray. This got worse as I went to year8 9 and 10 though for a good part of year8 9 and 10 my attendance at school was part time on 2 days a week as by this time I was on dialysis and I’d often have medical appointments and sometimes I used to get in trouble for turning up to school late on account of my being on dialysis. By the time I was in year10 the bullying got to the point where if I spoke up my support teacher would rap her hand around my face to try and close my mouth and to pull me into line as to stop me from speaking up. It was at this time I was being singled out by the deputy principal and was constantly on suspention so I up and left that school and switched the following year after it got to the point that staying at school over lunchtime meant fear of getting myself into trouble. I Couldn’t eat my lunch anywhere without getting told to fuck off. (sorry Meagan should have given a language warning at the beginning) so it was decided that I should go home for lunch. When I switched schools I did inicially start eating lunch in company but then retreated to keeping to myself and every afternoon I’d get asked who I had lunch with. I’d lie and say I ate lunch in company until I was never asked. I hid the fact that I was isolated and lonely from everyone in case it upset me and it did when I finally revealed it at the year12 retreat but I never mentioned it again and I probably never will. The definition of “friend” is kind of a loose term but over the past month or so I’ve gotten in touch with a besty who I’ve known for years and we get on really well and I can tell anything to her but I’m still rather guarded though I shouldn’t be. but I’m not exactly an introvert but I am slowly working on my social interactions and playing catchup as being on dialysis isolated me a bit due to the fact I never had many visitors there where other patients around me would have visitors. Joining the local Lions Club is probably the best thing I ever did and I get out and socialise with them at dinner once a fortnight, and I also go to other events. I’m sorry if this is so long winded and a lot of negative but it’s just how it is but I’m working on keeping positive as easy as it sometimes sounds.

    • Thank you so much for sharing these experiences here. Some of that sounds terribly painful, and I’m honoured that you felt comfortable telling me and other readers about it. I’m sorry you dealt with such a difficult hand so young, and I admire your courage in pursuing social activities and playing catchup, as you said. Keep persevering.

  3. I can entirely relate. Though my parents are both introverts themselves, so I think they were less worried than others might have been, though at times they seemed to cave to outside ‘authority’ pressure pushing me into activities such as girl scouts which I loathed and soccer which I was understandably terrible at. I too have memories of happily playing off by myself and a teacher coming up and forcing me to ‘go play’ with others. For me this created a lot of anxiety and I have multiple memories of being engrossed in my own game, lifting my head up to find the entire class had gone to do some group activity with the teacher without me realizing and panicking since I clearly wasn’t ‘following the rules’. I find it nice as an adult to realize, none of that really mattered. Most of my friends now-a-days are also introverts and we all understand the joy of alone time, or that one can indeed be social just being with someone even if we’re each doing our own thing coming together to collaborate as we want. I often wish more people, especially those in authority positions with children and parents, understood the differences between introverts and extroverts and that both have their place, respecting and advocating for both.

    • I’m glad your parents understood; mine didn’t always, particularly because my father, especially, is super extroverted. They’ve since come to understand, but it took a lot of time and repeated attempts to explain myself.

  4. Meagan – This was absolutely relatable, particularly given that I am a 15-year-old at the moment, going through my teenage life. Fortunately, I’ve got a great set of friends in my mainstream school, am recognized and respected (odd adjectives for a teenager, but yeah) by my fellow peers, and for the most part am fine with the social fundamentals. However, I certainly cannot make small talk or conjure conversation when there is no substantive topic to discuss, in which case I personally cherish silence. I often chit-chat with classmates and close school friends during free periods or breaks, but I equally love it when I can plug in my headphones and read up something more enlightening than the frivolities of tittle-tattle. I shall confess that my social circle in school was not always so well-knit, but with time and experience, I have learnt to celebrate introversion and balance it with friendship I derive from people I actually and truly enjoy hanging out with and being around. My maternal aunt labels me ‘anti-social’ as well, but I always feel more comfortable doing something more productive and worthwhile on the Internet rather than trying to strike an exchange with her about god knows what subject. Thanks for reading my ramblings though (I do that on my own blog too – Hiking Across Horizons – https://bhavyashah125.wordpress.com) and do let me know in case there exists any more direct method to follow yours (I’ll go to the homepage and see if following or subscription options exist).

    • Thanks so much for reading, and for your thoughtful comment. You sound so much like me when I was around your age; it’s a bit like peering into a mirror. Unlike me, however, you appear to have embraced your introversion in a way that took me much longer to manage, so well done on that score. I, too, am comfortable enough with silence to make others uncomfortable, so I feel your pain there. I will definitely visit your blog soon! Thanks again for reading.

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