My kids have missed out on a few birthday parties this year. It isn’t that their schooled friends don’t like them. They do. But the fact remains that my children fall into that vast group of people kept at arms’ length simply because they are different. They are “other,” which has become a rather large and weighty umbrella under which society puts anyone who falls outside the parameters of what’s normal and accepted. Otherness can be based on cultural or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identification, religious or spiritual choice, mental or physical disability. And yes, otherness can be applied to those who make life choices which go against an established system. The list is long and it wavers and varies and morphs in tune with our individual and collective fears. Whether we like to admit it or not, at one point or another, we’ve probably all been guilty of employing otherness. It’s very notion is based on a fundamental lack of understanding, a reliance on assumptions and fear of the unknown. But it can also be eased by compassion and understanding.
My children like to play in the ocean, dig in the dirt and chase pigeons like all their friends. But they don’t go to school and that makes them different. Their otherness is particularly exaggerated because we are the only homeschooling family in our expat community. They stand out like two star-bellied sneetches who threaten the very fabric of sneetchdom. At least that’s how other parents view them. Their friends just see them as kids, and if they do make the unschooling distinction, it comes from a place of curiosity, not prejudice. They want to know what my children’s days are like, how they learn, what they do, what time they get up and what they eat for breakfast. They ask questions, they say “cool” and everyone goes back to being just kids. They have so much in common after all. But that doesn’t mean my children don’t get left out sometimes.
A few months ago, my daughter overheard her good friend inviting everyone in their judo class to her birthday party. Everyone except my daughter. When she told me this, her bottom lip quivering, my natural response was that there must be some misunderstanding. There was no way her best friend hadn’t invited her to her birthday party. The phone would ring, I was sure of it. A written invitation would be dropped off. Of course she was invited.
But she wasn’t and the day of the birthday party came and went. There were tears. Hers and mine. My daughter asked me if the reason she wasn’t invited was because she didn’t go to school. Although I couldn’t think of any other reason, it was a hard thing to say out loud. I’d protected both my kids from this prejudice before, but this particular friendship meant a lot to my daughter. Rather than stay mired in a puddle of unanswered questions and hurt feelings, I decided to encourage my daughter to be the good friend that she is.
So after the next judo class, she asked her friend if she could talk to her. They sat on the lawn together and I watched from a distance as they sat cross-legged facing each other. At first, they both looked down at the ground, heads bent, hands fiddling with blades of grass or strands of hair. But eventually they began to look at each other, to laugh, to unfurl legs and arms. My daughter gave her friend the pair of earrings she had made for her as a birthday gift. And the void that otherness had created was narrowed by understanding.
It turns out that this little girl had wanted very much to include my daughter at her birthday party but her parents insisted she could only invite her school friends. Her parents also didn’t want her to ask questions about how my daughter learned or talk about how lucky she was not to have to go to school. The subject was off-limits. This seemed to satisfy my daughter because she understood that her friend hadn’t rejected her, that the decision had been imposed on her.
I don’t know if every outcome will be as positive as this one. But my daughter got the answers she needed and her friend was given the benefit of the doubt. Some parents have accepted our otherness and even embraced the important exchange that can take place between schooled and unschooled children. Others are still threatened by our choice and the questions it brings up about education. But my children understand by now that choosing to do things differently is a risk and with the joy of that risk comes occasional disappointment. They also understand that it’s important for all us not to make assumptions about other people’s motives or actions.
That’s why our children’s friends are always invited to their birthday parties. It’s part of the compassion we desire from others. And it almost always leads to understanding and forgiveness. Young hearts are good at that.