Monday, October 17, 2011

When Mean Girls Grow Up

They say that youth is wasted on the young.

Well, I don't know about you, but I wouldn't go back to being fourteen for a million dollars. The insecurities, the anxiety, the endless drama. Between clique politics and adolescent hormones, middle school is an emotional roller coaster that I do not care to revisit, thank you very much.

To say that there's a lot of pressure to be popular at this age would be a ridiculous understatement. And, the moment of truth — when you are sized up and all too often put down — invariably happens in the school cafeteria. The administration at my daughter's school recognizes this and proactively does what it can to minimize the collateral damage. Lunchtime is blessedly short. The principal and guidance counselors patrol the room, keeping a watchful eye out. Kids choose their own tables at the beginning of the year, but then they have to stay there.

This system has its pros and cons. It avoids the daily jockeying for a place next to the cool kids (and the inevitable exclusions and hurt feelings when those seats are denied). But, on the flipside, you don't get the chance to cultivate new friendships. Hit it off with your lab partner? Too bad. You can't switch tables midstream to sit together. An established friendship is going through a rocky patch? Too bad. You're stuck next to each other day after day. And, if a friendship that was fast in September has cooled by November, you still have to break bread with your ex-bests for the next seven months.

Too bad.

Overall, I think the system makes it easier on the adults but puts strain on the students. And, while it may deter some forms of bullying, if a chum is going through a mean girl stage, you're trapped in the line of friendly fire.

The form of bullying that's going on among my daughter's classmates is very subtle; in fact, it's almost passive-aggressive. It isn't physical and doesn't even include teasing. A couple of queen bees decide, on a day-by-day basis it seems, who they're going to include and who they aren't. If you're not on the A-list that particular moment, you're pretty much ignored all through lunch.

Being attacked hurts. Being ignored hurts too.

Recently, I was talking about this subject with my mother and she reminded me about my own encounter with a mean girl. It was fourth grade and the girl was new to our school. She wasn't prettier or smarter or richer than any of us but, for some reason, she had the power. And I, for some reason, was her target. She cultivated my friends and pulled them away from me. She made fun of my glasses and told everyone that I didn't really need them but just wanted attention. She announced to an entire party that my mothers M&M cookies weren't any good so no one would try them (for the record, my mother's cookies were not good; they were fantastic). Relived forty years later, these slights feel ... well ... pretty slight. But, that girl made my life miserable for an entire year.

Thinking of my nemesis, I wondered what had become of her. I mean you can't be pushing fifty and still be the class bully can you? I did a quick search on Google and there she was. She may or may not be nicer on a personal level these days, but professionally she is pretty amazing. She is a renowned journalist and AIDS activist. Who'd have thought?

For now, I do what I can to help my daughter be strong when others are weak, and kind when others are cruel. I try to help her put things in perspective, and be resilient and thick-skinned when she needs to be. We talk about the choices she makes and how she can give mean girls less power over her. We brainstorm ways that she can strengthen her more positive friendships (and pull back a little from the hot-and-cold ones). More than anything else, I explain that whatever the current injury is, it won't hurt forever. These girls will grow up and maybe they'll be wonderful people.

This morning, I read a quote that's worth repeating: Remember, if they're trying to bring you down, it must mean that you're above them.

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