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Listen, boy who can't find a crowd. Forget about them. Your crowd is perpetual happiness; your friends are imagination and style. You are the cool of cool and if I can say that, I can tell you this tumbling will end. You will not fall forever from someone else's dropkick. You will bounce back, boy. You will backspring into a high kick-flip and they will know you are a ninja in your own way.


Andrew and I are pals. He is the kind of boy I would have had a crush on in sixth grade. His cheeks are so chubby that his eyes squint and all you can see is their sparkle. He has an easy smile and when he talks, what he says is not only funny, but intelligent and way too mature for his eleven years. I met Andrew on the first day of school. He asked to sit with me at lunch...

...in the teacher's lunchroom.

He says, "Can I sit with you at lunch?" and I blink and blush before I remember I'm not in middle school as a student anymore. I cock my head and ask him why and just as the breath pushes past my lips, I realize: Andrew has no friends to join. He'd rather sit with boring old grown-ups than eat alone.

I nod in the superior wisdom of an adult who, five seconds before, thought a sixth grader was picking up on her. I quickly scan the lunchroom for a place for him before I realize I don't know these kids any better than he does. It's my first day, too. Instead of joining my colleagues and bemoaning the downfall of America's youth, I'm standing in the middle of a buzzing cafeteria, scanning tables for the right clique. Panic.

Confession time. This one will shock you, but in middle school I wasn't the coolest kid. In fact, at lunchtime sixth grade year I chose the table closest to the door and didn't realize my supreme faux pas until a girl with headgear and a boy with glasses thick as coke bottles sat down next to me. Fast forward and quickly the dread sinks into my stomach like the lumpy pizza I had yet to consume. Where will he sit? My palms are sweating. My heart is pounding. This choice could scar him for his entire life.

I swallow hard and consider bailing on the poor kid before I realize that wait one damn minute. I survived middle school. I'm older and wiser and this is no big deal. I decide the best place for Andrew is a group of nice semi-geeky boys that still bring lunchboxes for the first few days of school until they wise up and switch to paper bags.

Slight problem. That group is apparently not in the cafeteria today. Andrew decides to sit down and start on his lunch at an empty table. By himself. I join him and we look really geeky now. I lean over my greenbeans and tell him, "Hey, don't worry about it. First days are like this. Tomorrow we'll have a plan."

Andrew has my class right before lunch and so just before dismissing them, I circulate and ask the boys who they plan to sit with at lunch. Miracle of miracles: most of them have no idea. They just sat with random strangers yesterday and were too scared to say much. Really? This is normal? Did I block this ritual out of my scarred junior high psyche?

I encourage this handful of leftover boys to sit together. They do. I've saved them from the social blunder of inhabiting the Island of Misfit Toys. Andrew quickly becomes not their leader, but a sort of lumbering sidekick that keeps the peace and chuckles and helps everyone else chuckle, too. This kid is awesome. Some day he's going to have the world all figured out and I can tell it just by watching those eyes twinkle.

So when Andrew comes to me and asks me to sponsor a Lego club, I can't resist. When I walk past Andrew at the counselor's office and learn he's having a bad day because some kid called him names, I have to stop and offer consolation. When Andrew sits outside on the bench because his father is late picking him up, I feel not compelled--but happy--to sit and keep him company. When Andrew brings me a Christmas present and whispers, "Even though your grandma's Jewish," I have to hug him so hard my eyes squint shut like his. He is the little brother I never had.

More than anything, I want to take him by the hand and show him how to ace a midterm or best a bully or talk to girls. I want to take him aside and explain life and everything, because a kid like that needs to know. I want to pat his shoulder and say "Listen, boy. Everyone is their own kind of ninja. And you--well, you're the best kind."

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