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Finding my Home Among the Carmelites

alec vanderboom

In ninth grade, I lost my steady lunch group. For five years, I'd eaten lunch every school day next to my best friend Kellum Ayers. Kellum was Scottish, with a Scottish Terrier named "Scottie", thin blond hair and an amazing talent with the violin. Some days, I brown bagged my lunch with bologna, cheese and mustard sandwich. Some days, I had peanut butter and red raspberry jelly. Some days I had a Capri-Sun. Sometimes, I had a can of Cherry Coke. Occasionally, I had enough spare quarters to buy an Almond Joy at Huffington Market for dessert.

Every day, however, I had Kellum's sunny chatter about the latest happenings in Orchestra class to accompany my lunch.

Then my Dad failed his tenure review at Ohio State University and suddenly I got yanked out of my "perfect" suburban high school dreams and placed in a rural West Virginia where there were actual dirt roads and days off for deer hunting season and boys who wore Redwings to school instead of K-Swiss tennis shoes.

Nine grade was a bit of a culture shock for me.

I remember sitting in Health Class filing out a State Testing Form which had the following question:

How many years of school do you intend on completing?

a) ninth grade

b) tenth grade

c) eleventh grade

d) twelfth grade

e) some college

"How ridiculous!" I thought. At 14, I knew I was going to graduate school. Here the official state form wouldn't even let me check off a bachelor's degree.

I snorted out loud, and several of the guys sitting next to me looked up. I rolled my eyes and pointed to this questions. They looked back at me in confusion.

That's when it forcibly struck me that in my 9th grade Health Class, I was one of only three ninth graders. Health was a freshmen required class. If you flunked it, you repeated it. I sat in a 35 person class filled with 32 juniors and seniors. There was a big chance that most of the people in my class weren't going make it past letter "b."

The world sort of opened up to me in that moment.

In retrospect, the whole yanking me out of sheltered suburbia was a good thing.

During my ninth grade year, however, it was incredibly lonely.

Every time the bell rang for first lunch at 11:45, I'd get an anxious knot in my stomach: "Where would I sit at lunch?"

By some scheduling fluke, I got assigned to the lunch period with very few freshmen. I think there were 12 freshmen girls in the whole cafeteria at that time.

Ten of them were freshmen cheerleaders.

The freshmen cheerleaders were all good Christians. These girls were extremely kind. They let me sit down at their table. They asked me kind questions about my family and my sports interests.

The problem, of course, is that I don't have an sports interests. I had no idea how the Pittsburg Pirates differed from the Pittsburg Steelers. I didn't have a boyfriend who followed baseball or football or basketball. (My father and baby brother didn't even follow baseball or football or basketball.) I had no idea what being "pre-engaged" meant. I had no favorite perfume, or favorite skin care regime or favorite shade of Cover Girl lipstick. I didn't even have a common Algebra homework to groan over, because I skipped out of even taking a math class that year.

So every lunch period I sat down with a steaming, yet inedible hot lunch of mashed lasagna and faced a wide social gulf between my inner world and the rest of humankind at Buckhannn-Upshur High School.

It wasn't that the Cheerleaders weren't open. It wasn't that they weren't friendly or kind. It was just that deep down I knew it was only a matter of time before the glib social small talk around the lunch table bumped against a brutal uncomfortable truth; I was a strange, strange girl from an alien planet.

So everyday for a year at 11:45 AM was "Please, don't make me sit at the Cheerleader table today."

I think said yes to at least two Friday dance dates that year, solely so I had a place to sit for a while other than the Freshman Cheerleader lunch table.

Fast-forward two years to the beginning of my junior year, where I found myself sitting next to a girl I'd shared the same Cross-Country Team Bus, Pep Club Bus and Band Bus for three years. Only today, during this otherwise ordinary lunch in the same glaring lemon yellow cafeteria, we start having a real conversation about a book, I think it was Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly, we start finding all of this commonality, like that we both adore English class but despise Math Class, and it turns out that I find a new best friend again. I found my "Kellum." And all I can think, after all of my lonely, at loose end lunch periods is,"I finally have a person to sit next to at lunch!"

That grateful feeling is all I can say about finding the Carmelite order. It feels so good to have a home in the Catholic church.

I know what I'm supposed to do. I'm a contemplative. I'm supposed to pray.

I don't pray well yet. I don't pray often. Yet I still know where my lunch table is in the interior social map of the heart.

The Catholic church. A grand place for everyone inside!