My First Day at School
Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children

We moved around alot when I was a kid, and I'd been new at school a bunch of times—in Canada, in Australia, in Canada again. But in 1980, it felt harder: We were moving to yet another new country—the United States—and this time my new school was a boarding school outside Boston, hours from home and worlds away from the Toronto public school I was leaving behind. Worst of all, I was 13.

Nineteen eighty was the year of preppy mania. The Official Preppy Handbook was a best-seller. Seventeen magazine ran a cover story highlighting preppy fashion. My parents, indulgent of my adolescent anxiety—negotiating bad skin, breasts, and boys seemed hard enough, without a whole new society of scary, well-heeled Americans to decode—had allowed me new items for my wardrobe. I was used to making my own clothes on my ancient Singer portable, out of Vogue patterns and cheap fabrics, but I knew they wouldn't be right for my new life. So I'd spent weeks planning my first-impression outfit, and when I climbed out of the taxi that late summer morning, I wore a green woolen kilt, knee-high argyle socks, Bass Weejun loafers, and a pale gray button-down shirt, with a Fair Isle sweater draped strategically over my shoulders.

Of course I'd got it all wrong. It was 85 degrees in the shade. Even before I walked into the large white clapboard dormitory, I was sweating like a pig. Perspiration poured down my temples, down my back, in the crooks of my knees. Worth it, I thought, if it meant that my Canadian bumpkinness didn't show and I could slip into the crowd like someone who was, if not born to boarding school, at least plausibly American.

But inside I grasped at once that my trouble went beyond the damp patches on my clothes. Girls—so many blonde girls—milled about, chattering as if they'd always known one another, all of them wearing Indian-print T-shirts, floaty tiered skirts, and flip-flops. My new roommate, a six-foot myopic blonde, too cool to wear her glasses, apparently couldn't even see me when I said hello. Worse than wrong, I was invisible. Even the other new kids ignored me. Only one girl, a kind black girl from St. Louis, asked where I was from and whether I didn't want to change into something less stifling. The shame of it lives in my memory as only shame can, as if it were yesterday.

Still in my kilt but without the socks and sweater, I stuck to the kind girl like a pet and trotted along mutely beside her to the opening-day events. She didn't shun me, but she laughed at me, which actually made me feel better. A few weeks later, I would buy several 1960s psychedelic print shift dresses at a garage sale for 5 cents apiece, and stuff my preppy clothes in the back of my closet. It would all, eventually, be more than okay. But I've never forgotten the early shock of it, and the pain, imperfectly repressed, remains a useful lesson in misery, a reminder of how lonely and foreign it feels when you don't belong.


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