One of my earliest and most enduring memories of my time at secondary school is also, coincidentally, the first time I was consciously aware of what I now recognise to be a longstanding case of social anxiety.
It was the first day of secondary school. Everything was big and new and scary — I’d come from a small village school in which the entire school population was roughly the size of a single year group in my secondary school. I’d chosen to go to said secondary school because a lot of my friends were going there, and also my brother had attended there some years previously and had come out of the experience as what is generally accepted to be a Good Person. Also, a lot of the people who had been bullies to me in primary school were going to a different secondary school, so I knew that I wanted to avoid that one like the plague.
But I, as ever, digress.
It was the first day of secondary school. I was sitting in my new seat in my new tutor group, and our tutor, Miss Quirk (yes, really), had tasked us with spending a few minutes getting to know the people around us.
I gazed around me. I was sitting next to a boy named Murray whom I didn’t know. In front of me was a girl named Claire, whom I had instantly fallen in love with due to her long shiny blonde hair and the fact she wore short skirts with tights — something which I found (hell, find) inexplicably attractive. (Hey. I was eleven years old and easily pleased — but to be fair, she did remain consistently stunning throughout our entire school career.)
Behind me was my sometime best friend from primary school, Matthew. I say “sometime” because he wasn’t always my best friend — he was a somewhat fickle chap rather prone to occasionally deciding he’d rather hang out with the “cool” kids, whose opinion of me tended to flip-flop back and forth on an almost weekly basis. Needless to say, I ditched him fairly soon into my secondary school career as a result of two events: one, him sneezing so hard he snotted over his hands and then ate it – mmm — and two, him deciding that sitting in his chair, miming masturbation and bellowing “I’m a wanker! I’m a wanker!” would be somehow amusing. (To be fair, it was sort of amusing, but perhaps not in the way he intended; needless to say, I didn’t really want to be associated with him after that.)
Anyway. Our seating arrangements were the way they were in order to encourage us to interact and get to know each other. We’d been deliberately seated next to people we didn’t know to encourage us to break out of our primary school “cliques” and widen our friendship circles — a theoretically sound idea that even at that tender age, I could see the benefits of.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t act on it. Given the prospect of being thrown into enforced interaction with someone I didn’t know from Adam, I froze up. I had no idea how to begin a conversation, how to get to know this person. Frantically, I turned around to gaze at Matthew (a pre-”I’m a wanker! I’m a wanker!” Matthew, I might add) and looked at him pleadingly.
“I can’t remember how to make friends!” I said quietly to him. He just laughed and motioned for me to turn around and talk to Murray. He obviously hadn’t taken my statement seriously, and that was frustrating, but I had little option but to try. It was a terrifying experience, though, and obviously I didn’t set a particularly good first impression on Murray, because he became a complete bellend who bullied me on a regular basis. (I got my own back by punching him in the face just as the principal was walking around the corner and, although I was punished for lashing out like that, the unspoken consensus between my parents and the teachers involved was that he probably deserved it — and to be fair, he didn’t bother me again after that.)
That first day and that pitiful statement — “I can’t remember how to make friends!” — stuck with me, though. Because I can’t remember how to make friends. It just sort of happens. I have made friends with people over the years, of course — the friends I made after I abandoned Matthew following the “I’m a wanker!” incident (such as Edward James Padgett, who has been mentioned in this post since it was first written, he just didn’t see it); my university flatmates; my fellow students on my music course (though not on my English course — I didn’t really get to know anyone on that side of things); and people I’ve worked with — but if I’m thrown into a new situation with unfamiliar people, or simply decide that I want to get to know new people who perhaps share my interests… I still have no idea how to do this.
This is, as I’m sure you can appreciate, frustrating, particularly as at the age of 32 I finally feel that I have found a number of geeky “niches” that I fit nicely into, and would like to share these experiences with like-minded people. I greatly enjoyed spending time with Mark and Lynette while we were over in Canada because they are both My Kind of People who enjoy the things I do — but I also found myself somewhat envious of them for having a group of friends they play Dungeons & Dragons with, watch anime with while drinking cocktails and all manner of other things that are in keeping with their interests.
This isn’t to say I don’t have friends, obviously. The friends I see most frequently are my regular(ish) board gaming group, and I wouldn’t exchange them for anything, since I really, really appreciate the time I spend with them indulging in our mutual hobby. However, we do have our own incompatibilities — two of our number are really into football, for example, while the rest of us either have no strong feelings or actively hate it. (I fall into the latter category.) Similarly, I very much like Japanese video games, while several of the others cling to common misconceptions about them and thus either refuse to play them or have little interest in exploring them and having their misconceptions disproven — though at least they are patient and willing to listen to me talk about them. Conversely, a couple of our number are big into Skyrim, a game which I found almost unbearably tedious after a while. To continue the pattern, I’m a big fan of anime and would really like it if I could have a semi-regular viewing session with a small group of people, but no-one from that particular group is biting for various reasons — some don’t like or don’t see the point of sitting and watching something together as a group; some aren’t interested in anime.
You get the picture, anyway. I obviously don’t begrudge my friends these incompatibilities we have — everyone is different, after all, and thus has their own tastes — but I find myself wishing on a regular basis that it was a bit easier to find additional friends (note: not “new” friends, because to me that implies a degree of “replacement”, which I don’t want) who have common interests.
Actually, let me qualify that somewhat: I find myself wishing that it was a bit easier to find additional local friends who have common interests. It’s obviously no problem whatsoever to find new friends on the Internet who have similar tastes to me, and I’m very grateful for the fact that I do have so many people on the Internet that I can rant and rave about how awesome Ar Tonelico is or how much Kana Little Sister made me cry or whatever. But as much as I appreciate these friends in far-flung corners of the world, it’s not quite the same as having someone you can just pop over and see at short notice, hang out and do some things that you both enjoy.
So, uh, anyone want to hang out, play some games and watch some anime?