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The Empty Seat (A Story of Acceptance)

Photo by: iStock

It’s dinnertime, and my daughter Zoey and I go about our nightly routine.

Zoey sits at the kitchen table and studies this week’s spelling words as I finish getting our meal ready. It’s fresh fruit and veggies and homemade mac and cheese. When I finally place our dinner on the kitchen table, Zoey’s face lights up — it’s one of her favorites. She moves her pencil and paper out of the way and pulls her bowl closer.

“Come sit next to me, Mommy,” Zoey says, as she points to the chair next to hers.

I accept her offer and take my rightful place at the empty seat next to Zoey. She tells me about her school day as she begins eating her dinner. For a while I don’t even eat; I quietly sit and listen to this tiny girl, sitting at the table in her little red polo shirt and plaid wool skirt, chattering on about her friends and art class and the day’s lunchtime shenanigans. And as she talks, I can’t help but be reminded of a girl I once knew.

I am 14, and it is my first day of high school. I absently adjust the waistband of my brand new, stiff, plaid skirt as I stand in the doorway of a busy cafeteria. My other hand holds the lunch my mom packed me, and my eyes scan the room, looking for a familiar face even though I know it’s pointless to do so: I know absolutely no one in this sea of blue and grey-uniformed teenage girls. Shy and scared and feeling terribly out of place, I finally muster up enough courage to try and find a seat.

As I walk around, I feel a low ache forming in my stomach. I think about how I’d rather be back in Tennessee, having lunch with the friends I knew at a school I’d planned to attend.

This all-girls school in Ohio hadn’t been part of the plan.

I finally eye a table with one empty seat. The others are occupied by girls laughing and talking as if they’d known each other for years, and they probably had. But I convince myself their faces seem nice, so I find myself walking over to them.

“Is that seat taken?” I ask, pointing to the vacant spot. “Do you mind if I sit there?”

The girl sitting next to it looks up and gives me a quick once-over. Her eyes then dart around to her friends before she answers.

“Yeah, sorry,” she says in a way that leads me to believe she doesn’t really feel that way. “You can’t sit there.”

Before she can see my tears, I turn around and quickly walk away. I make my way into the hallway and find an empty bench. I put my lunch back in my backpack and sit there as I count down the minutes until the next bell rings.

The stomachache doesn’t go away, and every day for over a week, I go home with an untouched lunch.

A few years ago, when Zoey was three, her daycare announced it would be closing unexpectedly. Because staying at home wasn’t an option, I panicked and scrambled to find a preschool for her to attend. I called every place I could think of without luck; it was late summer and spots were already filled. But one Sunday after church, when it seemed I’d exhausted all my options, I noticed a sign hanging outside the school that belonged to the church.

It mentioned they had openings in their preschool classes for the upcoming year. I scribbled down the phone number on a scrap of paper from my purse, hoping this would be the answer to my prayers. And in case the prayers weren’t enough, I remember crossing my fingers for extra luck when I called the next day.

As I told the school secretary the story of our situation, I heard her flip through some papers. When she she did not immediately answer, my heart sank. I suspected the class was already full and someone had probably just neglected to take down the sign.

“Here we go.” Her voice came through the phone again. “We do have an opening in our early childhood program. And… I actually can’t believe it… but we also have an opening in our traditional preschool program, too. We almost always have a waiting list.”

“What does that mean?” My crossed fingers tightened.

“If you placed your daughter in the traditional program, she would have a spot all the way through eighth grade,” she said. “Would you be interested?”

In that brief moment, I recalled all the times I felt out of place when I moved to a new city and started a new school. I remembered the look on that girl’s face, one that silently judged me as I stood in front of her at the lunch table, my vulnerabilities laid out for everyone to see. I remembered feeling like I wasn’t good enough to be accepted into a new group of friends. I remembered the lingering stomachache, one that I used to try to convince my parents to let me stay home from school. And I remembered vowing to myself that I would never do anything to make someone feel the way I’d once been made to feel. Sending Zoey to this school would mean she might never have to feel that way. Instead, she’d have a place to feel at home, with friends that would be with her from the beginning.

Without hesitation, I of course said yes.

Over the next few days, we toured the school and worked through all the logistics. The school year would start before Zoey’s daycare closed. Tuition would be expensive, but no more than daycare had been. The school and church could offer a feeling of community and family. They even offered an outstanding after-school program offering enrichment activities in a loving and caring environment — a huge bonus considering I wouldn’t be able to pick her up until my work day ended in the evening.

Finally, with the details taken care of, the school called to confirm the good news: They were accepting Zoey into the class. They were inviting her to stay.

They were giving her the empty seat.

A few weeks later, I dropped Zoey off in her new class. Together we found where she would be sitting, and as she settled into that empty seat, she looked up at me, her face full of different emotions. I knew she was excited, but I knew she was scared, too.

I knelt down and leaned my forehead against hers, and said to her what I’ve told her every day since:

“There are only two things you need to do today: Be brave and be kind.”

Because to me, when it comes to acceptance, being brave and being kind are pretty much one and the same. When you’re brave enough to accept someone who others sometimes won’t, you are practicing kindness. You’re also practicing tolerance, love, and respect. As a parent, I believe these are some of the most important lessons I can teach my daughter.

When I picked up Zoey at school the other day, I found her at a long table, drawing and laughing and surrounded by friends. After seeing me, she ran up into my outstretched arms, hugged me, and gave me a kiss. “I’m not finished with my drawing. Can I stay a few more minutes?” She asks this often, and my answer is always the same: of course.

As I signed Zoey out, I noticed a preschooler playing by herself on the other side of the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Zoey stand up from the table to get a few new markers. Zoey picked out a few colors before she noticed the girl, but when she did, she walked over and knelt down next to her.

“Want to come sit next to me and color?” Zoey asked, extending her free hand out to the little girl. The toddler accepted Zoey’s with her own and followed her back to the table. Zoey’s little head bent over her, and although she spoke softly, I could hear the words she was saying: “Which marker do you want? You can have any of these colors. We can share. You can always come sit with us. I’ll always make room.”

Although Zoey shows me every single day that she takes all of my words to heart, in that snapshot of a moment, I knew that one of the lessons I’ve taught her will be everlasting: Be brave and be kind…

I let Zoey keep coloring, and I took the opportunity to keep her teacher company. We talked and laughed as the children did the same. And although those few minutes turned into thirty, I didn’t care. Zoey and I were each sitting next to someone at a table, accepting others into our hearts and hands and arms, and in doing so, we were also being accepted for who we were. It was far more important than anything else we needed to be doing.

And as for 14-year-old me at my new Ohio school? Eventually — just like it did for Zoey — things worked themselves out. I became friends with a girl in one of my classes, and one day as I walked into the school cafeteria by myself again, I saw her. She caught my eye and waved me over. When I finally made my way to the table, she pointed to the seat beside her and said, “Come sit next to me.” It made all the difference in the world, and for the first time all year, I finally ate my lunch.

Together we created a tribe of friends. One by one we accepted others with outstretched arms, and by the end of high school, our table was just as full as our hearts.

I even became friendly with the girl who first told me me no, because — just as I tell Zoey — it’s always important to be kind, especially to those who appear to need it the most. Sometimes I even remember to say a little prayer of thanks for that girl and the important lesson she taught my 14-year-old self, the lesson I’m teaching my daughter today:

Open arms are always better than a set of closed ones.

So today — and every day — be brave and be kind. Don’t let anyone feel like they aren’t worthy of an empty seat. Accept them, love them, take their hand, and invite them to sit next to you and say, “You are safe here next to me.”

Corey Wheeland is a writer, graphic designer, and marketing professional. Her blog is The Nostalgia Diaries, and her writing has appeared on Red Tricycle and Perfection Pending.

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