Social Minefield: Mastering The First Day Of School

Whatever your age, the first day of school is one of the most dangerous social minefields of all. Luckily, we have some tips for keeping your head high and your notebooks un-flushed-down-the-toilet.

Between K-12, college, and grad school, I've been Back to School a lot over the years — and in some pretty different places (Los Angeles; Iowa). But I've learned that a few things make the transition easier no matter who or where you are — and now I'll share them with you.

Listen.

This is great advice in many situations, but it's especially key when you find yourself in a new environment: don't talk too much right away. Ask questions, and listen. People will like you — you're so interested in what they have to say! And also, you'll learn not just the answers to your questions, but also the answers to questions you didn't even know to ask. You'll find out what dumb nicknames the kids give all the campus buildings, which one is the good falafel place, and who's the campus narc (at my high school, the "kid" with the full beard who carried his backpack in his hand). I'd also add that if you're of drinking age, consider abstaining for a bit. Let other people get all drunk and loose-tongued while you stay sober and soak up their candor. You can let loose later, when you know all the lingo and can actually find your way home from the bar.

Know your older kids.

No matter how old you are, there are always going to be Older Kids — people who have been at your high school/college/graduate program longer and already know the ropes. And at least initially, they fall into two categories: Nice and Mean. I don't care how mature your cohort is, there are always going to be people who try to freak you out by telling you that every new kid gets thrown in the dumpster, or nobody makes friends with people in their dorm so you should stop trying, or that grad school will turn you into a depressed, sleepless harridan who is unable to love. These people may hate school, they may be insecure, they may just be sadistic. It's not important to psychoanalyze them. You just need to avoid them.

Nice older kids, on the other hand, will show you how to get to class, or drive you to the doughnut place, or buy you a beer and assure you that the feeling of alienation and despair will pass with time. They are out there, and they are an important fast track to wisdom that will otherwise take you months to acquire. Find them.

Go to class. Mostly.

Social Minefield would never do something so unethical as suggesting that students cut class. Really, you should go! Not only will you learn stuff, which is why you're in school in the first place, but you will also meet people. And have things in common to talk about, like the objective correlative, and how it was funny when two kids sawed an entire desk apart in class with a hacksaw and the teacher never noticed (this happened). But on occasion, there may be times when fun and bonding can be had by skipping class, and when, potentially, more can be learned outside of the classroom than in it. Nice older kids can be a good resource for determining which classes are more skippable than others, and what things are a good idea to do should you decide to skip. Which we would not advocate. Ever.

Don't give a shit what other people think.

I know, I know — if it were that easy, you wouldn't need Social Minefield in the first place. But honestly, 99% of the social problems I encountered in my various schools came from caring too much what other people thought of me. Especially at the beginning, you'll feel better — and, perversely, be better-liked — if you can make yourself give less of a shit. One way to do this is to avoid comparing yourself to other people. They probably have insecurities and hangups and problems too, but you're not going to find out about them right off the bat, so it's best to assume they suck about as much as you do and move on. Also, remember that you have a life outside of school. This is harder to do if you're, say, in high school, but you can still go for a bike ride or call your cousin in Omaha or volunteer at an animal shelter or something. You want to get comfortable in your school environment, but that doesn't mean school has to be everything to you, and you'll be more relaxed if you have a little bit of an outlet — especially one that lets you get out of your own head.

Don't worry; it gets better.

So maybe you just got to college, and the first thing that happened was your entire freshman class put on their bathing suits and watched The Little Mermaid, stone cold sober, while paddling around in an Olympic-sized pool. And everyone acted like it was really fun and not awkward and you were pretty sure you had landed among a bunch of really optimistic aliens, and your only choices were complete social isolation or investing in a seashell bra. Or maybe you're like Hortense, and you went to school with a stomach bug and vomited in front of the entire keyboarding class on Taco Tuesday. Most of us have at least one experience like this, and I'm here to tell you: Wednesday is coming. The Little Mermaid will not last forever. The first day is always the weirdest, and if you're anything like me, the first week or so at a new school will take on its own color in your memory, a special tinge of I-didn't-know-what-the-fuck-I-was-doing. It will look strange to you in retrospect because then you did learn what you were doing, and you realized that none of the people who would come to be your friends even went to the "dive-in movie," let alone thought it was fun, and all the awful things you thought were facts of your new life actually turned out to be facts of newness. But newness passes, and before you know it, you're the older kid. At which point I have only one piece of advice for you: be nice.

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