Eyes glued to the tile floor, shoulders squeezed tightly together, chest compressed into an unnoticeable speck. Unfortunately, I am anything but overlookable; my bright yellow shirt is a stranger in a sea of blue uniforms. It is my first day of school in a new country, and calling me nervous would be an understatement. Schools of students swim past, sprinkling the air with an unfamiliar language. Eyes flit like cautious flies, looking my way, then quickly switching focus, but I feel their heavy stares. Brushing them off, I focus on walking forward. Right. Left. Right. Left… I have always lived in the same place, so I was never the “new kid” in school until the summer before ninth grade on an exchange program in Costa Rica. In a time when many students, including myself, have been attending school online, I have thought back to this experience frequently. My memories of the exchange program not only remind me of a time when we could travel and meet new people without fear or danger, but they also have taught me crucial lessons about empathy that I have found especially valuable in 2020. After all, in the sometimes uncomfortable world of virtual education, we have all occasionally felt like a "new kid".
Leading up to my trip to Costa Rica, I was excited to attend school with local students in an immersive environment. I would expand my vocabulary, experience a new culture — maybe even make some new friends from around the world! However, my awkward Spanish forced me into avoiding interaction. The last thing I needed was a humiliating Spanish slip-up at the cafeteria table; it would just solidify my image as the stereotypical, high school foreigner. My stomach sank at the mere thought of the days ahead.
The school itself was breathtaking: squares of green, open-air gardens flourished between roofed hallways. When it rained, cool mist filled the corridors and the rows of hydrangeas smelled like sweet earth. The campus also included a spacious gym and covered turf field; clearly, the community invested in their children’s future.
Despite the extraordinary building, the first days at school were torture. In class, I sat silently for hours while students took their final exams. Boredom stretched the day into eternity. Waiting at my empty desk, all I could do was doodle aimlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt alone alone; it seemed like everyone and no one noticed me all at once. Many students asked empty questions, but no one talked to me like they cared.
In retrospect, I realize that students’ end-of-the-year stress made my school days even more dismal — while trying to pass their tests, the furthest thing from their minds was making a new friend. It’s not that I expected to be accommodated; I just hoped that I would feel more welcomed. Instead, wandering through my classes, I felt like a lost dog: unwanted, neglected. Everyone seemed to see my differences rather than acknowledging the ways we were the same.
At that moment, I empathized with new kids everywhere, especially those who spoke a different language. The language barrier between myself and these students made it ten times harder to make any connections.
However, as days progressed and the weights (of tests, for them; and newness, for me) lifted, some students took pity on, and perhaps interest in, me. They talked to me genuinely about everything, from local culture to American politics. I learned about people’s favorite singers and TV shows, their secret crushes, and the best condiments for a green mango. Slowly, my feet transformed from dragging against the concrete to walking with a spring in my step as I got off the school bus each morning. What was once lonesome was now pleasant, and I could feel the start of friendships around me. Though it hadn’t shown at first, these students appreciated me.
As I walked into my last class on my last day, laughing eyes flitted around me once again, not cruelly like before, but with anticipation. Suddenly, the students rushed into the hallway, pulling me along, and crowded into a sunlit green lawn square. One student (buzzing with excitement and a hint of apprehension) whipped out a camera, captured a polaroid, and slipped it into a burnt-yellow book, which she handed to me. It clicked. After days of thinking that no one noticed me, I realized that, indeed, I mattered to the students — though I arrived as a temporary stranger. Having actually perceived that I drew the school hours away, the students gifted me a sketchbook. Feeling the textured paper, I opened the cover, where now laid the sunny polaroid of us smiling ear to ear, framed by the class's signatures and kind notes. Though the book itself may not have been priceless, the thought and effort behind it couldn’t have been worth more to me.
My journey as the “new kid”, from an isolated desert to a friendship oasis, opened my eyes to a broader perspective. I learned that showing acceptance to others could transform their outlook on an experience from dread to delight. I learned that exploring new places and meeting new people will always be a part of my aspirations, even if if it has to happen from home for now. All of these lessons have been crucial for adapting to my virtual classes in 2020. Even more than a year later, I still think about what the exchange program taught me about school dynamics, exclusion, and the kindness of a community:
Care about new kids, for some day, you will be in their shoes.