What I Learned About Friendship From 5th Graders

I spent five years of my life teaching elementary school, and not to sound cliché (I’m about to sound cliché), but my students were the ones who truly ended up teaching me. I spent a lot of my time as a casual observer, pretending to be an anthropologist in the wild, figuring out what made my students truly tick. What I knew was that these kids weren’t cookie cutters. They were living, breathing human beings, and I had to know each of them as individuals in order to help them succeed.

So, little did they know, I did not spend my recesses in a Ms. Lippy-esque glue huffing haze, but rather helped them, played with them and watched them. Most of it was for their benefit and protection, but it was also to my own advantage. I was the one who truly ended up learning lessons, but the one that I valued the most was how to make and be a friend.

As we all know, making friends is really hard, especially as an adult. I don’t know about you, but I’m currently having a major case of the quarter-life crises. I have no clue how to make new friends as a full-fledged adult person.Is there a Match.com for making BFFs in your late twenties? Can you put an ad on Craigslist? Make a Sims family? Am I supposed to befriend my local grocer who bags my Ben and Jerry’s every night? Calm down, Ali… you sound desperate!

Why is it that kids can connect over anything: TV shows, movies, sports, weather, mutual friends… even a fondness for Hot Cheetos? I noticed that by the end of the very first day of school, friendships, cliques and groups had already been formed. Plans were being made for the weekend, and numbers and emails were being exchanged!

So, let’s bring it back to me (I’m needy, sorry!). Why was it so simple for my wonderful students to make friends, but sometimes so hard for me to truly connect with others? Children have an innate emotional vulnerability; they don’t have all the walls that adults have that prevent us from opening up and truly bonding with others in a meaningful way. It was time for me to learn a lesson about friendship… from fifth graders.

These are the things I learned from my students (from spying on them during recess) that we should seriously be practicing as adults.

1. Share friendship bracelets and other thoughtful gestures.

I think my students were single-handedly keeping Claire’s Accessories in business. I’m talking about those heart necklaces with “best” on one side and “friend” on the other. Best friend earrings. Best friend backpacks. Best friend t-shirts. Best friend slap bracelets. Everything.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be friendship bracelets, but there is something about exchanging a thoughtful present or note, especially if it’s for no reason at all, that makes you feel close to someone.

Once, I was set on getting a rib tattoo (audible groan) of my favorite quote from Jane Eyre. What showed up in my mailbox a week later? A silver bracelet with “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” engraved on it. My best friend knew I’d probably regret being inked when I was 80, and had spent the time (and the money) to hand design jewelry for me instead.

So pass notes. Write little emails. Send a text. Surprise your BFF with a gift.  You’ll be amazed at how good it will make both of you feel.

2. Make up dances.

I once helped my students choreograph a dance to One Direction for the school’s talent show, and I’ve literally never had so much fun in my life. Every recess I would blast music from the speakers as we would 8-count our way through songs, cry-laughing the whole way through.

There is nothing more soul satisfying than putting on Katy Perry or some grimy rap and going into full dance party mode with your girlfriends, especially after a couple of cocktails. Turn the sound up, turn the lights down and dance like no one is watching. Dance until you are soaked in sweat. There is only one rule: no making fun of anyone’s moves, even if a certain friend’s signature step looks like they are rowing a canoe. That certain friend is me.

3. Talk about boys!

What did the girls do during recess? Gossip, gossip and more gossip. My little chickadees would play MASH, make crush lists and talk about hunky celebs (I know more about Justin Bieber than I’d like to admit.)

I get no greater joy than truly listening to a friend in need and giving her thoughtful, constructive advice, even if it is just about a boy. Help your best friend shop for an upcoming blind date. Help a girlfriend make a voodoo doll after a bad date or breakup (jk?)! Analyzing texts is fun too. My girlfriends and I have been known to take screenshots of conversations, and probe one another for advice on what to say next. Yikes, that sounds scary written down.

4. Trade snacks.

I swear there was a black market snack ring going down in my school, a whole granola bar/Hot Cheeto/Oreo cookie cartel that ruled the schoolyard with an iron fist. Students would trade snacks with one another, and on special occasions, a parent might bring a special treat for an entire group. It was something the kids looked forward to every day, and something they usually planned the day before.

What does this look like for adults? One of my favorite things to do with girlfriends is plan a big potluck dinner. Each month we choose a different house. Make a mixed CD. Bring a bottle of wine. Prepare your favorite dish (or buy a roast chicken at Ralph’s, put it on a plate, and pretend it’s your grandmother’s recipe. This also works on dates). Oh, and cheese plates are practically a necessity.

I think about my students every day, and am grateful for the myriad of lessons they taught me. They impacted and changed me in a forever way, and I can only hope that I did the same for them. I’m a happier, gentler, smarter person for having had them in my life, not to mention a better friend.

So, what do you do to connect with your friends?

Main image from Shutterstock

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