Her name was Claudine. And she was the meanest fourth grader at Byrom Elementary. Every single day, she wore an oversized burgundy Members Only jacket, Nike hi-tops and a scowl.
Claudine also ruled the bus.
This I did not know.
The seats were full when I boarded the bus for my first day at a new school. All but one. Children gazed at me with wild eyes as I traipsed down the aisle towards the back of the bus with the awkward lankiness of a second grader weighted down by a Strawberry Shortcake backpack. Claudine, when she saw me coming, launched her heavy leg up onto the sticky vinyl seat, preventing me from sitting down.
“Don’t even think about sitting here.”
(Which was a stupid thing for her to say, because it was the only seat left on the bus. I HAD to think about it.)
Gripping my backpack straps with 50 lbs. of boldness, I squeezed onto the edge of the seat, my tiny butt hitting up against the sole of her shoe. Claudine shifted and for a split-second I thought it meant that she was going to allow me a bigger portion of the seat. Then, without warning, her foot slammed into my body, pushing me onto the aisle floor.
My favorite rainbow shirt twisted around my body as my hands landed in the dirty sneaker water that inevitably pools up on bus floors. I picked myself up, making contact with her beady eyes that were silently celebrating her triumph. The other children craned their necks over the high seats, trying to capture a glimpse of our altercation.
I sat down again on the edge of the seat, one hand clutching the seat back in front of me, one hand gripping the leg that was bolted to the floor. I braced for shoe impact. Once again, Claudine pummeled me… over and over again like a factory machine… but I held tight. My tiny body slid along the cushion until only a fraction of a butt cheek was still in contact with the seat. I used my spindly legs to balance the rest of my body in the aisle, staring straight ahead until we pulled into the school parking lot.
I’d like to say that riding the bus got better, that Claudine and I eventually developed a healthy admiration for each other’s defiance. Or, in an ABC-After-School-Special kind of way, that we eventually became best of friends.
Every damn day she kicked at me with those Nike hi-tops and every day I braced myself.
After a few weeks, one of the kids on the bus, Kiersten, whispered to me as I walked past, “You can sit by me.” She was sitting next to another girl who instantly became panicked at the thought of three people sharing a bus seat. I stopped in my tracks, my face beaming with gratitude. They scrunched over and I, once again, balanced my tiny butt on the edge of the seat, supporting the rest of my body on lanky legs sprawled out into the aisle.
But, this time it was different. They asked me to be there. They wanted me to sit by them.
They made room for me.
It’s a simple childhood memory, but one that I think about often as I run my business.
The world is full of people who feel like they don’t belong, myself included. Misfits. Disrupters. Oddballs. Free thinkers. Champions of the weird. Shy people. Old people. Young people. People in general. Our common thread is that we all want to matter. We roam in a world that is hell-bent on forcing us into a box of pleasant mediocrity. Dress like this. Act like that. Be wittier with your tweets. Wear brown socks. Make more money. Keep your hands in your lap and for crying out loud, quit rocking the boat and asking so many damn questions.
Then… maybe… you’ll belong.
It sucks to hang out with the Claudines of the world simply because it’s the only option.
What if, instead, businesses went out of their way to make people feel important? What if scrunching together on a seat was the one thing that could make the biggest difference?
We need more businesses that will slide their leg off of the bus seats and say
You can sit by me.
We get you.
We know what it’s like to feel as if you don’t belong.
We’re not like everyone else.
We are open to new possibilities.
We won’t judge you.
We love how weird you are.
We want to learn from you.
We’re glad you’re here.
We are all a little weird. In that commonality, we find a sense of belonging and understanding in the world. Make room for people. Let them in. Cherish their quirks.
“You can sit by me.”
Five words can change everything.
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