Kids in all the schools that the Nevada Journal and Tri-County Times cover are headed back to classes today.

For many kids and parents, back to school is a fun time of year…a time to get back in a routine, reconnect with friends and build on the future promise of the next generation.

Now that my own kids’ K-12 school careers are safely in the rear-view mirror, I’m writing this week strictly from my heart about why going back to school isn’t fun for everyone, and quite simply what I have observed as the main reason or reasons why.

Bullying is a concept that gets a lot of talk in society. Too much sometimes. My experience as a parent is that what hurts kids most isn’t really the type of bullying we remember…kids getting beat up…big guy versus small guy stuff.

I see kids getting hurt from not fitting in. I believe and know in my heart that a lot of kids will feel more pain this year from being “excluded” than they will from being punched.

I can hear some parents saying right now: “Well, those kids who feel excluded just aren’t trying hard enough.” Or, “My kid, who might happen to fit in well, doesn’t have to be friends with everyone.” Or, “Obviously, kids will connect with the kids who are like them; it’s always been that way and it’s just the way it is.” And so forth and so on.

I also understand the idea that kids have to be careful who they hang out with. After all, no one wants their child to fall in with the wrong crowd.

But, there are a lot of really good kids in our schools who pose no threat to anyone else. There are a lot of these non-threatening kids who never get chosen, are often overlooked, and who want desperately just to be invited to do something, to feel needed and to be part of the school spirit that many enjoy.

When I was in high school, I was in all the sports, played in the band, was an FHA officer (yes, it was Future Homemakers of America), was in the drama productions … basically, I did it all. And I always felt welcomed in whatever type of activity I was in. I was a lucky one. I was outgoing, and even, probably described as “popular.” I knew everyone, got good grades, started in most sports and was respected by the staff.

Because of my standing, I was invited during high school to be part of something special at the time, and thinking back, I believe it was simply called “Peers.” The high school principal picked out some of us who had it pretty good in school and asked us to be part of this group. We even took a few days off from classes to travel to a “peer training” event. The mission — helping ALL the kids in school feel like they belonged.

It had an impact on me. We were a peer team, looking for kids who weren’t always included, weren’t always feeling like they had friends…and we were becoming friends to everyone and bringing those kids into the fold. We learned in our training to open our hearts to the kids who were in the background and remember that they were as important to our school spirit as the kids who were starting on the playing field.

I loved the mission. I love that I remember being friends with all kinds of students at my high school. I remember inviting kids to come to FHA meetings, or to please be at the volleyball game because our team needed them in the stands. I remember encouraging the quiet kids in class that they had a good idea and should share it with everyone.

Sure, there were some kids who maybe didn’t respond to any of our attempts to get them involved, but at least we were trying to break down the walls around them. And for those who all of a sudden started to come to events and open up more in class, I think all of us on the peer team realized that these kids were really not that different from all of us. In the grand scheme of things, they had a lot to offer.

One thing I very much despise of any present-day teaching staff is that they allow kids to “pair up” for special projects. As a parent, I hated this tactic every time it was used, because I sometimes had kids who didn’t have anyone to “pair up” with. When I asked once why this method of getting projects done was acceptable, I was told that “some parents wouldn’t want kids paired up by teachers for big projects, because they wouldn’t be happy if their child had to work with certain kids.” Really? Guess what I think. “Get over it! These kids will soon go out into a world where they won’t always get to pick their co-workers, their bosses or many others they come in contact with throughout life.” Please, if you are a teacher or administrator, let’s do away with allowing kids to “pair up” for projects … let’s pair them up strategically so they get to know kids they might not otherwise get to know.

I really hope that someone reading this — whether it’s a teacher, a student or a parent — might think, hey, this is the year I’m going to do more to help all kids fit in. Some may not respond to that attention, that’s their choice, but even if one or two kids feel like they matter more and belong, this will be a better school year for a few more kids.

Marlys Barker is editor of the Nevada Journal and Tri-County Times. Agree or disagree with her thoughts, email her at: