M y fingers felt electrified, tingling, while the flip-flop of my heart told a steady tale of excitement, of happiness. But then I caught myself, reined in the giggle burbling up my chest, lest my emotions show too strongly.

It was crucial that I play this cool.

“Sure…” I replied, keeping my voice steady, conveying an air of nonchalance. “I’d love for Yonatan to have a playdate with my son Shimon.”

The beginning of that phone conversation had started with a strange introduction. I hadn’t recognized the tentative voice, certainly not the phone number.

“Hi, is this Shimon’s mommy?”

“Yes…?” I replied, a question stamped in my voice.

And then, Yonatan’s mother identified herself.

Yonatan… as in, the coolest kid in my Shimon’s kindergarten class. Yes, I realize, I’m slapping on a label that seems premature, at best.

But I have seen, even at this age, how coolness has a way of being carried by its wearer. It’s as if there’s a special popularity factor, in which some kids seem to win the genetic lottery, as if it’s implanted within their DNA. They somehow have the suaveness, the Look. Born into just the right families, they wear the right clothes, the right knapsack, the right yarmulke.

Yet it’s not just nurture; it’s nature. It’s their body type, hair that always grows in perfectly. It’s the dimple, the natural charisma that you can’t feign. You can dress these kids in years-old hand-me-downs and, unfailingly, their inner charm will shine through.

And now, Yonatan, Mr. King of Cool, wants to play with my son.

Suddenly, I’m thrown back to fourth grade, to the awkwardness of self, the cliques, the hierarchy of social structure. The notes passed quickly, surreptitiously.

It was just after Pesach when I entered this jungle of elementary school politics. And it was a challenging crash course, a steep learning curve in the who-what-how of popularity. I’d venture to say it was more difficult for me than for most. I was thrown to the wolves as a trial — before skipping me, my school first wanted to see how I would fare in the older class for a few months.

Thus, for the tail end of the year, I was placed in the grade above my own.

It has been 20 years since that fateful day when I walked down the long hallway to the fourth-grade classroom. It has been 20 years since that anxiety: What will they think of me? It’s been 20 years since I placed my hand on the doorknob, turned it, and discovered a twilight zone of social norms.

For in that one short year between third and fourth grade, a gap of only 12 months, of 52 weeks, of 365 days, I had traversed an expanse far greater than the sum of its parts. I was eons away from the social structure of third grade.

Girls were clustered together, protective packs, whispering. Recess was no longer a class activity; it was a tribal war with pretty ribbons, each beglittered army exchanging snacks, words, looks.

And I, the lone stranger, with the frizzy pony tail and too-short socks (unbeknownst to me, everyone switched from bobby socks to knee socks in fourth grade), smiled at the packs of wolves, a genuine smile displaying the wide gap between my two front teeth.

Until then, that gap was endearing. In fourth grade, that gap symbolized all that I lacked, putting forward my failings, loud and clear, for all the world to see. Even to my untrained eye, I saw a ripple work its way through the class, informing their communal smirk, a turning of the shoulder, joining closer, closer, closer to their individual groups.

With one voice, in complete silence, they shouted: Leave. The covert message could not have been delivered more strongly: You are unwelcome here.

I looked down, the speckled floor tiles blurring in a kaleidoscope of confusion, of chaos, mirroring the brewing of an internal maelstrom. A silent hush descended on the classroom, and just then, I felt the warmth of a hand on my shoulder; human contact, reaching through to mend my heart, stitching together the broken pieces. My new teacher, her eyes warm, led me to my seat at the front of the class. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 564)