By Kathy P. Behan
Death, yes. Torture, maybe. But hardly anything is worse than your first day at a new school. You don’t know anyone, and you’re convinced you’ll never fit in. You’re sure the first time you open your mouth you’ll make a fool of yourself.
Take heart, you won’t need to call in sick the whole first semester. There’s lots you can do to make your adjustment speedy and less stressful. To help smooth your path through the first awkward days, here’s the scoop from students who’ve been there.
Know Your Way Around
“When I got to high school I spent the first two weeks wandering the halls, looking for my classes,” says Kate, 16. “I felt and looked like an idiot.”
Many schools have orientation programs for newcomers, which give the lowdown on, among other things, the school’s layout. Some schools even have a “buddy system.” Each new student is assigned an “old-timer” who eats lunch with her, helps her find her way around, and answers questions. If there isn’t a formal introductory program, check out the school on your own before classes start. Familiarize yourself with the location of your homeroom, classes, the cafeteria, gym and bathrooms. Sometimes a guidance counselor can also give you a tour.
“On the first day of classes I wore what was popular at my old private school— a frilly white blouse and tweed skirt,” recalls Jill, 15. “The other kids had on T-shirts and jeans. Talk about standing out in a crowd.”
A wide range of looks is acceptable, but it’s best to follow the crowd at first in how you dress. Don’t wear anything too casual or too formal. Unless your school has a dress code, jeans or cords with a nice shirt are universally acceptable. But whatever you choose to wear, make sure you feel comfortable. Otherwise, you’ll feel and look out of place. By dressing smart, you can look like you belong—even though you may not feel that way yet.
“I was so nervous about fitting in that I tried to give myself a complete makeover,” remembers Claire, 14. “I tried to look, act, and talk like everyone else. I almost went crazy.”
It’s awfully tempting, sometimes, to leave your old personality and its problems behind at your old school. But usually it’s a lot easier to be yourself and get people to like you for who you really are than it is to re-invent your personality. You may be able to fool people into thinking you’re someone you’re not, but why risk the strain. Is the real you so terrible?
And don’t be pushed into behaviors or situations that don’t feel right. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it. If it’s offered as the price of acceptance, avoid a major confrontation. Just firmly and politely say, “No, thanks,” and walk away.
Relax and Be Good to Yourself
“When I first started school, I tried not to take myself too seriously,” says Beth, 17. “Otherwise things affected me more than they should. I learned that a bad grade isn’t a terrible failure, and if I don’t have a date Saturday night, I’m not a social outcast.”
When you start a new school and you’re eager to project a positive image, it’s easy to let small setbacks loom large. It takes time to make it in a new school; don’t make it tougher on yourself by having unrealistic expectations. If you expect to win a popularity contest your first week at school or to know everyone in your homeroom, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll feel more comfortable with each passing day and so will your new classmates; remember, they have to get used to you, too.
“By joining the chess, French, photography, and tennis clubs,” says Gail, 15, “I got to know almost everyone.”
Maybe there’s an interest you’ve always meant to pursue—acting or singing, for example. Getting involved in extracurricular activities makes you feel more a part of the school, with the additional bonus of meeting other kids in a casual and relaxed setting. And sharing a common interest is a great icebreaker. But beware of overcommitting yourself out of desperation or just for appearances. Joining the volleyball team because it’s popular won’t score you any points if you’re bored and net every ball.
“I tried to be friendly to everyone,” comments Jenny, 13. “I got to know a lot of different people, and then became friends with the ones I liked best and were most comfortable with.”
Set aside some time every day to socialize, especially if you’re shy. Try to get to know at least one person in each of your classes. Be open to meeting new people and don’t be afraid to make the first move. Give people a chance. Even if someone looks or acts differently than you do, he or she may still make a good friend. Strive for lasting friendships. Don’t just try to get in with the “in crowd.”
A good friendship is based on mutual likes, hates, interests and shared concerns. After you’ve established yourself, don’t forget what it’s like to be new; now it’s your turn to reach out to new classmates. And remember that first friends are certainly not your last, so don’t feel you must confine yourself to a certain group. You can’t ever have too many friends.
Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer specializing in health and family issues.