How to Win Friends and Influence People

06/23/2010 By Shawn Burns

I went to a lot of schools, with a lot of different kids, in a lot of different towns. I never really figured out how to adjust to a new school, a new class, but I do remember learning that first impressions were important.

I remember learning it around the beginning of the fifth grade, as I was being introduced to my new classmates out on the playground. The principal had welcomed me, the new kid from the reservation across the river, and then, clear even to a ten year old mind, made a strategic introduction:

New kid, meet the cool kid. Cool kid, this is the new kid. You’re cool for some good reasons and not many bad reasons, so you will make him feel welcome.

I could tell that this was the cool kid. And I could tell that those who played with him were also, by virtue of being his friends, cool. How can I have wanted to be cool so young? But I did. I knew what it meant and I knew what the cost of not being a cool kid was. It meant finding a place instead of places developing around you; it meant work.

I was lazy.

I was lazy, and I had no game. (To be honest, it was 1987, and game hadn’t been invented yet, so no one had game. But whatever the mid-80’s equivalent of game was, I didn’t have it either.)

I was lazy, I had no game, and I had a nervous energy that inspired (1) lack of impulse control and (2) terrible tactical errors.

In order to win the respect of this new gang I did what any embodied-Id would do: In mid-sentence, as I was introducing myself and my talents I announced:

I’m great at headlocks!!”

And I grabbed the smallest kid in the gang of cool kids and I wrapped him up in a headlock. I was announcing my presence with authority, to steal a line.

I immediately regretted my choice, and the kid didn’t seem so much intimidated and put in his new place in the pecking order as he did weirded out by the weird new weirdo who tossed headlocks around like they were handshakes.

The principle also did not approve of the new kid suddenly assaulting another student.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I remember that sudden, first impression and the nervous energy that led to my mid-sentence breakdown. Luckily (or exactly as I’d planned, ah ah ah), I became good friends with all of those guys. But I never tried to assert my scrawny dominance ever again.

Erin’s daycare has several classrooms at each age range. She has moved from the Tiny Kids room to the Little Kids room and today, finally today, suddenly today, she “graduated” to the Big Kids room.

By design the kids in the younger classrooms don’t move as a group into the same bigger room when they advance; they are introduced to new kids, some of whom they know, but most of whom they don’t. This mad shuffle takes place roughly once per year.

Although she kept a little to herself on her three transition visits to the classroom, her inevitable exuberance overcame her and she was soon chatting with the girls and chasing the boys. Today was a little different: she was quiet and solitary when we first arrived, not sure how the social structure of the room worked. She had been sick last week, the week she was supposed to start in the new room, and she’d had a lot of time to think about this new alien space. She was going from being one of the oldest, most comfortable, most entrenched kids in the Little Kids room, to suddenly being the new kid.

I watched her cling to her Woody doll, brought along for Share Day Wednesday, and focus all of her attention on making him comfortable in the room. She tucked him in, pushed him around in a stroller, talked to him.

Then she approached a circle of kids sitting on the ground playing together, led by the tallest, oldest girl in the class, and a light came on behind her eyes.

“Wait wait, listen guys!” she interjected into the room, waving her arms in front of her in the universal sign for “stop and pay attention to this brilliant detail that will improve your lives!”

All of her nervous energy bubbled out and she resolved to do her own ice-breaking, her own introductions, and to announce her presence with authority.

“This is Woody! Blehhhhhh” she japed. Then she laughed. Then she repeated it, having obtained a modest response from the kids on the floor. Then she tried it again.

The “This is Woody” part was pure nerve; the “Blehhhh” part was pure nerves. I could tell that she hadn’t figured out what she was going to tell these kids about her doll, but she knew that it could be used to get their attention and keep it long enough for her to insert herself into their domain. So it didn’t matter if all that came out of her mouth was a guttural sound; they were paying attention to her; she was controlling them and asserting her dominance of the room.

Tactically, the “blehhhh” was a much better choice than a headlock. But in that moment I saw myself as a child, as an older child approaching an older group and trying to find my way, and I was staggered by how much this little girl is her father’s daughter.

There’s no telling when those moments will strike, and I never expected to see her mirror my insecurity. Not this one. Not the little girl who owns every room she enters, who introduces herself speedily and readily to everyone she meets, who integrates herself with groups of older kids with easy energy. But there she is. Daddy’s little girl.