Everyone Belongs


We enjoyed being “in,” standing around saying hello, noticing new clothes, doing all the things we had planned for the school year. It was easy to forget that others might feel like strangers.

The first day of school was like most first days. We were standing around saying hello to those we had not seen since spring, noticing new clothes, and watching each other in case someone wanted a date. We lived in a small town in southeast Idaho. Our high school was not large compared to many. Six hundred students are probably too many for everyone to know each other well, but it was possible to know nearly everyone’s name because we had gone to school with each other for years. I was the student body president, and, like others, I was looking forward to the year because we were going to have good football and basketball teams. It was my last year.

While we were talking, a large bus pulled up in front of the school. Soon some students that no one knew stepped off. Of course, the rest of us wanted to know what was going on. After asking around we learned that the school district had decided to bring in about 40 students from Swan Valley, a lovely small town about 50 miles from the school. None of us stepped forward to say hello to them as they came off the bus. They stood in two or three small groups until the bell rang. I can still remember the looks of uncertainty on their faces.

It was not long until jokes began to circulate about the “Swan Valley kids,” jokes that made fun of their style of dress, speech, and other mannerisms. Few of us thought much about this situation because we were all busy doing the things we had planned for. We were known and were “in”; they were unknown and were “out.” There were dances, games, dates, and many other activities, and it was easy to forget about how 40 students might feel being strangers. They were not included on dance committees or ball teams or in student clubs. Everything had been organized the previous year, and there were few opportunities. Besides, most of them never came to the dances or games. I assumed it was because they had to travel too far and simply chose not to.

One day that winter I had been meeting with two students in the faculty lounge regarding student discipline. The meeting had just ended and I was about to leave when the door opened and a girl entered. She asked if I would talk with her. Nodding my agreement I sat back to listen.

Her name was April, and she was my age. She had lived in my home town for a few years. She was a member of my ward, rode on the same school bus I did, and although she was not a member of my circle of friends, we had been to many of the same activities. She had one of those bubbly personalities which some thought was a little too much at times. She was just insecure and talked fast to let off some of the tension she felt.

She was of average height, slender, with dark hair and blue eyes. Few of us came from wealthy families, and she was no exception. But her clothes were always clean, and she kept herself neat and well groomed. I can see her in my mind’s eye standing on the corner waiting for the bus as we approached from the other direction. She had a ready smile for everyone and sometimes she visited with the other kids who were waiting at the corner. But often she stood alone and then sat alone on the bus as we rode to school. She sometimes made attempts to start a conversation or join one that was going on. Often she was met with a chilly reception, suggesting that she was not yet a full-fledged member of the group.

That year in senior English we had been assigned to write an in-class paper on “A Person I Admire.” I sat at the end of the same row as April. When it was time to turn the papers in, the teacher asked if I would gather those from the students in my row. As I placed the papers in the pile on the teacher’s desk, I noticed, to my surprise, that April had written about me.

My reaction indicates how truly insecure I was about friendship. Instead of feeling flattered, I was embarrassed. I suppose I was worried about what my buddies would say and how they would tease me if they knew April admired me. So I was glad that no one but the teacher had seen those papers. Several days passed, and then came the conversation in the faculty lounge.

She started talking as soon as she sat down, and she started crying too. She said she did not have any friends. I weakly asked, “What about Jackie, or Phyllis?” They were her sometime companions and were Laurels in our ward. “Oh,” she replied, “they are all right, but they are not really close friends.”

I don’t remember much else of the conversation except that she cried most of the time. It was a hard cry. I could have recognized this was something that I could have done something about. Today, I better understand the loneliness, the disappointment, and the bone-aching unhappiness when there are no friends and we do not belong anywhere. But then, I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what to do with all the emotion in that room, and the thought even crossed my mind that if the guys saw us together alone, they would really get on me.

I tried to listen to her and even made some suggestions, but they were not very useful. She arose after several minutes of conversation. It must have seemed useless to her. Turning at the door, with tears still flowing, she said, “I am going to get friends any way I can.” After she left, the bell rang and I went to my next class.

We had a pep assembly that afternoon, and since it was my responsibility to conduct it, my mind turned that direction and to the game our team had that evening. The incident in the faculty room was forgotten. Forgotten at least until one Sunday morning a few weeks later.

It was early in the morning when the Laurel teacher came. I was returning from feeding my father’s cattle when she found me, a strained look on her face. “April has had a serious accident and is in the hospital. A group of us are going to see her after church today, and we want you to come.” I agreed, thinking the accident must not have been too serious if we were going to visit her. Her teacher explained that she had been out the night before with a boy who had become drunk and hit a semitrailer. The small car he was driving provided little protection, and he was killed instantly. April had survived the accident but was in critical condition.

I changed clothes and went to priesthood meeting. It was held in the morning, followed by Sunday School, and sacrament meeting was later in the afternoon. After priesthood meeting a few of us were talking about April and telling what we each knew about the accident. You see, April was not the type of girl who would ordinarily date a boy who drank, and yet she had and she was hurt badly. As we were talking, the Laurel teacher came into the room, grim faced, and whispered, “April died a little while ago.” There was much soberness in our ward that day.

The next day at school there was a lot of talk about what had happened. Some knew April; many didn’t. I don’t think anyone was as affected as I was. I went through my classes not knowing what to say or feel or do. That evening, April’s father called. He said he knew that April admired me and asked if I would consent to be a pall bearer at the funeral.

Two days later I sat by myself in the old wooden choir seats, looking down at April’s family and relatives in the audience. They mourned her loss, something I had not had to do with any of my family. It was easy to see how much they cared for her. Their collective grief made them seem as if they were closing, circling, defending themselves against any other possibility of pain.

The funeral ended. With the other pall bearers I carried the casket to the hearse and joined them in a car for the ride to the cemetery. In a short ceremony the grave was dedicated, and the speaker tried to comfort April’s parents. The crowd milled around for a moment, then started to move toward their cars. They walked a few steps but stopped as they heard the sounds of the casket being lowered into the grave. April’s mother broke from the comforting touch of her husband, turned to face the grave, and began sobbing aloud. She walked toward the grave until her legs gave way and she fell to her knees. “My baby! My baby! Don’t take my baby!” The sorrow and agony in her voice made everyone turn. She was pleading through her cries that somehow she would not be separated from her daughter.

It had all happened so quickly that no one had reached her, but then her husband gathered her in his arms, raised her up though she was weak and had difficulty standing. The other family members quickly gathered, giving support while they escorted her to a car. That scene is clearly and lastingly implanted in my memory. Even incidental details—the hour of the day, the weather, the color of clothing, the style of cars—are stored in my mind.

I went to school the next day and found that a student council meeting had been scheduled. I had been so concerned about other things I had forgotten it. We talked about the funeral; nothing else seemed important. We talked about what we had done or not done for her that could have motivated her to seek out the people she was with on the night of the accident. During this discussion I recognized that she, and perhaps many others like her, might look happy on the outside and yet feel very lonely. It occurred to us that the students from Swan Valley might feel as she did. The discussion turned to what we could do for them and should have done weeks earlier. We tried to find several ways to involve every person. We committed ourselves to learn all their names and to say hello to them—a very simple thing really, but one so important to those who are new or who feel left out.

Pretty soon there was a change in our school. There were no new kids or old kids. There were just kids, all of us together. Later I remember being at a basketball game one Friday evening. I noticed one student after another enter the door. With their parents, they were driving 50 miles each way to attend a basketball game at their school, just to belong, just to be a part of what everyone else was doing. As they walked over to find seats, I saw them greeted by other students. People moved over along the benches to make room. They were smiling at one another as they removed coats and settled in for what would be a fun and exciting game.

I think of April whenever I hear about a group of Beehives cliquing together and leaving someone out, or a teachers quorum failing to include a new member. I occasionally hear of adults who are no wiser and do not want some individuals to belong to their group. I have had other conversations like the one with April. I have been able to recognize the deep and enormous need we all have to belong. It is so easy to say hello, to ask a question, to invite someone who is shy to dance. It is not difficult to remember every member of a quorum or class and make certain each is welcomed. Everyone can make a new ward member feel welcome and give a small amount of warmth. It only takes a bit of courage to let the person know they are welcome. Everyone benefits. In all of it, we discover that in the Lord’s eternal family, everyone belongs and is wanted.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann