My niece started high school this year. She’s gone from being an exuberant, all-singing, all-dancing, excited to see me & tell me all about her accomplishments girl, to barely looking up from her phone on the couch to acknowledge my presence when I visit.

A couple of times when it’s been the right moment for her she’s opened up about the stresses of finding her identity within the dynamics of the friendship groups & the pressures of social media to be just the right amount of popular to not make yourself a target for bullying.

The high school quadrangle can be quite intimidating. All the groups separated and built on alliances as flimsy as having long blonde hair and hanging out at the beach after school, the most popular group securing prime position under the big tree next to the canteen. If I had the chance to do a Back to the Future time-trip I definitely wouldn’t choose the high school era, too many restrictive rules & regulations & false friendships.

I grew up in a country town & moved to the big smoke at 8, all the city kids thought I was a novelty & invited me in with open arms. On my first day at a new school starting 3rd grade I was introduced to a group of girls all prettier than the next, I wanted them to like me, one of the girls, slender with a Posh Spice Lob told me her name was Caroline. I still to this day don’t know why, but I said, that’s my name too, she beamed at me and we linked arms and she introduced me to the remainder of the group like we were bosom buddies.

I spent the rest of the day in a sea of Rainbow Brite happiness, I felt accepted, I had made the difficult transition into a new school and was bursting with confidence when my Mum picked me up at the gates. The next morning my teacher called the roll, Amanda, Marsha, Rebecca…, I was aghast, I stood there moments away from being outed as someone other than Caroline the new girl, please don’t say my name… she said it, I whispered, here, 28 eyes darted from all angles of the room and stared at me ?

The clock ticked over to the recess bell and I had some explaining to do, I’m sorry that’s not my name, I just really like it & wanted it to be… the girls to their credit didn’t hold it against me, in fact that air of identity mystery made my presence more interesting. I learnt a lesson though about the humiliation that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not.

I forged a strong friendship with one girl, let’s call her Amy, we were besties, my older brother & her brother were besties, our parents became besties, I slept at her house on the weekends and we had cups of tea and watched Eastenders (her parents were English) and danced around her room singing Papa Don’t Preach like we understood the words.

At the end of year 5 her parents decided to relocate back to England, we were devastated, we shed sad tears of goodbye and wrote each other letters all summer from different continents. A few days before school was to start my Dad told us we had to go to bed early because we had an early start the next morning and needed to drive to the airport to pick up some relatives.

I had no clue until waiting at arrivals I saw Amy and her parents come through piled high with suitcases. Apparently moving back hadn’t lived up to expectations and they couldn’t wait to leave the long cold English winter behind.

Having sold their house to make the move my parents graciously offered them accommodation at ours, sleeping on the floor felt like camping and I was too ecstatic to have my BFF back to care. We started year 6 together and one day while being ostracised by the rest of our group for some petty reason I realised that Amy wasn’t defending me, I felt alone, I asked her at lunch, why when the other girls say mean things about me don’t you defend me?

She replied flippantly while playing hopscotch, I just go with the flow, that was a catalyst moment for me, even at 12 I was like WTF? You’d rather concede independent thought and loyalty to a majority rules friendship proposition.

That was the beginning of the end of us being BFFs, the final nail was her parents buying a house one suburb over and her enrolling at a different high school, which became the continental drift.

My Mum told me when I inevitably came to her hurt by something my supposed friends had done, that if I could count my true friends on one hand as an adult I would be blessed. I learned to be selective and the biggest insult that I heard throughout high school, from some girls who didn’t know me, was that I was a snob.

I was never bothered by that, it felt rather like a badge of honour because I had learned to differentiate between acquaintances and true friends.

I hope that my niece is able to do the same without feeling she needs to surrender her integrity or identity. It’s more important to be true to who you are and to develop your own self worth, then to spend your time worrying about being liked. If friendship is a gift, then being authentic is the box it comes wrapped in.

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