"I look fabulous!" declared my six-year-old daughter as she stood in front of my bedroom mirror wearing her first day of school ensemble. It was the night before school started and everything was just about ready. New shoes, new socks, new dress, new backpack filled with new supplies. New headband, new hair cut, new student. Oh yes, my daughter was ready for the first day of first grade at a new school, and she couldn't wait. Except that could. As she flitted and twirled around the house in her new digs, my eldest child repeated again and again, "I can't wait! But I can. I can't wait! But I can." Mixed feelings? Indeed.
The hubby and I also had mixed feelings. "She seemed ready to have me leave," reported my husband via cell phone after he dropped her off at school the next morning. Several times throughout the day, my husband and I spoke, both wondering how our first grader was fairing. Breaking into a class of twenty-two new girls who all went to school together the year before would not be easy - even for the daughter of an almost-minor-Jewish-Internet-celebrity.
As my big girl emerged from the school building while I eagerly waited in the carpool line, a huge smile was plastered on her face. (Exhale. The first day was great!) Upon entering the car, my daughter quickly informed me that the first day, in fact, was not great. She didn't know anyone's name, didn't have a snack for snack time, didn't know how to get to the water fountain, didn't have any friends to play with at recess, and didn't understand a word of Hebrew that her Jewish studies teacher spoke. For four hours straight.
It was hard to see my daughter struggle like this. In her old, small school, she was the star student, the big woman on campus, the girl the teachers kvelled over. Now, at this new school, she was a minnow in a sea of 1200 strange fish and she barely knew how to swim.
I tried to give her words of encouragement. "It'll get better," I told her, "you'll see." But then I realized that I could do more than just help her survive. There was an opportunity for personal growth here, and I didn't want my daughter to miss it. Feeling left out, I explained, was actually a blessing in disguise. If she really internalized the pain of being excluded, she could become the person who looked out for new people. And unless she experienced the loneliness herself, she would never develop such compassion.
We learn this exact lesson from the Torah, actually. Over two dozen times throughout the Five Books of Moses we're commanded to care for the stranger, whether he's a new classmate, co-worker or convert. The Torah reminds us that because we were once strangers in Egypt, oppressed and taken advantage of, we must never put another person through the same hardship.
When dealing with challenges in life, we often focus on simply getting past them and putting them "behind us". But if we can find the hidden lessons in the tough times and use adversity as a vehicle for growth, we, as people, can become as fabulous as my daughter looked the first day of school. (And boy did she look fabulous!)