When I was in seventh grade, I started a new school. The previous year had been my first year as a missionary kid in Thailand, and I’d attended a small school that was basically more like a homeschool co-op for MKs. It was a fun experience and probably a good way to adjust to life in a new country. But seventh grade was my entrance into a true, large international school overseas. Ruamrudee International School was a Catholic international school that used American curriculum and was accredited by the American board of something or other.
I still remember going to get fitted for uniforms and the worker telling me I was “so fat.” Great start to a new school, right? On top of that, I already knew that most of the American kids in Bangkok went to ISB, another international school there, but my parents’ employers had told us that ISB was too expensive. So I knew I’d probably be one of the few white people at RIS. And I was.
I won’t lie: seventh and eighth grade weren’t always easy. I was chubby and had braces and glasses and was fairly new to Thailand and was trying to fit in. But I did find friends, this weird amalgam of kids who liked to write songs and introduced me to new music and slipped notes in each other’s lockers and played pranks on one another. Like any middle schooler, I had crushes on boys who didn’t like me back, and I acted goofy at all the wrong moments, and I wished to be prettier. But that group of friends of mine opened their arms and accepted me anyway.
Since RIS was Catholic, there was a church on campus. It was built in the ornate style of Buddhist temples, and it was beautiful. Whenever we had milk break (what we called our 20 minute morning break) or lunch break, my girl friends and I would scarf down our lunches and then head “back church.” That meant we sat on the steps of the church on the far side near the parking lot to gossip, laugh, and swap crush stories. Back church was our secret place, our safe spot to be as stupid or crazy or serious as we wanted.
There were also some mornings I’d sit out there with my friend Dava before school, venting and listening and solving the world’s problems. Or at least trying to solve teenage girls’ problems. The columns and walls of back church absorbed many secrets, dreams, and remnants of friendship. Sitting in the shadow of those columns, I found a place to belong. I found a space to be myself in a foreign land, to be a regular teenager with friends who cared.
At the end of the day, all the buses would line up in the back church parking lot. My friend Beth and I would cross the street to the corner store and quickly buy snacks to eat on the bus on the way home. Sometimes there would be street vendors out in front of the church, selling meat on a stick or fresh fruit. Then we’d load onto the buses, leaving back church behind until the next day, when those steps next to the church would be full of students in white and navy uniforms, laughing and talking and thinking: This is where I belong.