This post has been percolating for a couple of weeks, but the underlying ideas are some I struggled with most of my life. I started talking about some of this recently with my therapist. Then, Amy over at Lucy’s Football wrote an AWE. SOME. blog post about Mean Girls, which I very much related to and on which I wrote a too-long comment to say how awesome she is. (You can go read it now. Her blog; not my comment. I’ll be here when you get back. Really, it’s okay. In fact, it may make my post even better, which I will totally thank Amy for later. I promise.) Right after that, I read a post by Jim over at Just a ‘Lil Blog about signs. (His post actually has nothing to do with Mean Girls at all. In fact, quite the opposite, it has to do with his pretty neat daughter, Emma. I will also be here after you read it. Go on. Or, you know. Maybe wait, ’cause it’s kind of a feel-good post, and we all know how I have a tendency to make people cry around here.) Not one to pass up a sign, I decided it was time to make this post a reality.
Any-who … You probably want to make some coffee and get a snack before you read much further, ’cause this one makes my other “long” blog posts look like tweets. Fair warning. Also, this post is not about grammar or autism. FYI.
I had an inkling kids could be mean. When I was in second grade, there was a boy in my class named Vincent. He had a bowl-cut if ever there was one, and I vividly remember that on picture day, his mom sent him to school in an ill-fitting suit, complete with a red bow-tie. I felt bad for him — not because he looked “uncool” (my favorite outfit was a Pepto-Bismol pink suit with an accordion-pleat skirt, okay?) but because he looked miserably uncomfortable. He looked the way I felt when my mother made me wear the thickest denim jeans known to mankind on a 100° F / 85% humidity day for a 2-hour car ride to New York City to visit my aunt. (Seriously, who does that?) My heart ached for him, and looking at him made me a little sweaty. Vincent also had horrible eczema. It affected his hands the most. So, when it came time to do one of the million things you do in second grade while standing in a circle, no one wanted to hold Vincent’s hand except our teacher. I finally had enough. Maybe it was because my mom has psoriasis, so I knew I couldn’t “catch” Vincent’s eczema, but I volunteered. If you asked me then why I did it, I would have said it was because it made me uncomfortable to watch 21 kids staring at the ground and fidgeting in an awkward silence, silently praying that Ms. Krawczyk pick someone else to hold Vincent’s hand. Still, even at 7 years old, the look of relief on Vincent’s face was not lost on me. So, it just went unspoken that for the rest of the year, I would hold his hand during circle stuff. His hands were rough, like sandpaper, but that was not remotely unpleasant and – in fact – a welcome relief from the disgustingly moist, clammy, vaguely food-crusted palms of half the other kids in my class. My first lesson in the Mean came and went just like that.
It took a while for the rest of the lessons to come. I loved school and being around the people at school until the eighth grade. In third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Barax, brought me back a dreidel from her trip to Israel. She gave me my own copy of Charlotte’s Web, which I still have, with her inscription to me. She came over to my house for dinner. I thought that was so cool. (Although it wasn’t until years later that I realized the purpose of her visit was to tell my newly divorced mother to get her shit together and start paying attention to me.) I won third place in a dance contest, busting a move to Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park. I was a bad ass.
When I was in fourth grade, my class was a fourth/fifth grade mix, and Mrs. Yee asked me to tutor some of the students in the class in reading and writing. I got to sit up at the front of the classroom when I did this. SUPER cool!
I was president of the Student Council in 6th grade, and that was all the cool, because I won the election in a veritable landslide. (Mostly because I ran unopposed, but whatever.) I got to help serve lunch in the school cafeteria one day a week, and I thought that made me spectacular. I usually was picked pretty quick for kickball or dodgeball pick-up games, and I never thought twice about it, because kickball and dodgeball were wicked fun, and who wouldn’t want to play? I went to school dressed like a kickball game might breakout flash-mob style, and it never crossed my mind that that was weird or different. (There is nothing wrong with wearing sneakers and a skirt. Lots of women riding BART sport that look. I was forging that trend, ahead of the curve was I.)
I spent one afternoon a week with my home-room teacher, going to her husband’s law office or just hanging out with her, and it never occurred to me that made me a “geek” or a “teacher’s pet.” (Well, actually, it never occurred to me that you wouldn’t want to be the teacher’s pet, because that came with some awesome perks, like escapist trips from the classroom to run notes to the office.) When my 6th grade math teacher Mr. Burscio had a stroke, a friend and I went to the hospital to see him and sneaked in his favorite candy, because we genuinely liked him, and it scared the crap out us of that he might not come back to school. I played first-chair violin in the local honor orchestra, which I told anyone who would listen. No one EVER made fun of me for any of this. Ever.
But, then eighth grade happened, and I learned damn quick about all the Mean, which caught me utterly by surprise. Eighth grade started with a double-whammy. Not only did we move, so that I had to change schools, but I skipped 7th grade, meaning I went from sixth grade to eighth grade. No passing Go. No collecting $200. Now, you’d think that moving was a blessing, because no one would know I skipped a grade at the new school, so I’d be saved that. But, a lot of shit happens in the puberty department between 12 and 13 – shit that was clearly not happening to me – and word got out. So, here I am, new girl in a new school – no friends and at the MOST socially awkward point ever. Eventually, I met a girl who lived near my house, and I instantly liked her because she was really damn funny. The problem, I would realize later, is that she was friends with the “popular” girls. They wore the right clothes. They did their hair just so. They lived in the right houses in the right neighborhoods. The liked the right boys. And, the harder I tried to fit in with this crowd, the faster I failed. They had Reeboks; I had Pro-Wings from Kmart. They had Bongo jeans; I had Wranglers from the discount bin at some random Western-wear store. They had telephones in their rooms with their own phone numbers; I had to ask permission to make calls from the kitchen counter. They always had money and a ride to go to the movies or the mall; I got an allowance that I had to shovel stalls full of horse crap to earn (and I mean that LITERALLY) and that I used to buy myself school lunch or to take the bus wherever I needed to go.
The first of the Mean – funny enough (not ha-ha funny but uncomfortably surprising-yet-not-laughable funny) – didn’t come from the girls, though. The first of the Mean came from one of their mothers (who we will call Mean Mom). I tried out for and made the cheerleading squad. My motive for doing this was not the obvious, because I didn’t associate the cheerleading squad with popularity. I didn’t even quite have a handle on the concept of “popular” just yet – it was developing only slightly faster than my boobs. Instead, I was motivated by two equally important but different things: (1) I loved dancing, moving, choreographing and performing, and (2) I could wear my uniform to school, which meant that for two blissful days each week, there would be no corduroy pants or quilted vests made by Grandma. (I may not have liked those clothes, G.G., but I appreciated them.) Lucky for me, I was good enough to make the squad.
That’s when I met Mean Mom. She was our “coach.” When we had our first squad meeting, we voted for squad captain. We wrote down the name of who we wanted to elect on a piece of paper, folded it and put it in a hat. I voted for myself, because I wanted to be captain. I’m good at organizing stuff, and I’m a bit of a control freak. When Mean Mom counted the votes, she huffed, “Well. Someone voted for herself, I see. How conceited.” Wha? Thankfully, she didn’t have the nerve to look me in the face, because I was red like a lobster and hot like the sun. I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to vote for myself. I also had no idea what “conceited” meant, but I knew from the disdain oozing from her voice like sludge from a sewer pipe that it wasn’t good. When I got home and looked up the word (after several attempts at figuring out the correct spelling), I was beside myself. Then, I was on a mission to make this woman like me.
Mean Mom and I apparently were not on the same page. A couple of weeks later, I asked her as we left the gymnasium whether our uniforms had to be washed in the washing machine or taken to the dry-cleaner. As the doer of my laundry by edict of Evil Stepfather (see below), I was super proud of myself that I thought of this before I washed the uniform and ruined it. Mean Mom never answered me. Instead, she said, “You haven’t washed that uniform yet?!? You’re disgusting.” The way she said the word “disgusting” made me want to take three scalding-hot showers in a row. If there had been a bridge anywhere within walking distance, I would’ve thrown myself off of it. Instead, we lived in the flattest place on Earth (except for the ginormous hill I had to scale to get the horse stables to shovel shit), and I had to settle for slinking away home. I washed my uniform in the washing machine, opening the lid every five minutes to make sure it hadn’t fallen to shreds or some other awful fate bequeathed upon it by water and soap. When it survived the first cycle, I washed it again, just in case. I had a nightmarish vision of Mean Mom teaching the girls a cheer in my absence. It involved nine girls clapping, rhythmically chanting, S-T-I-N-K, then turning somewhat simultaneous cartwheels, landing on one knee, pointing to me and yelling, That spells STINK!
Mean Moms lead to Mean Girls. I’m convinced that Mean is learned. So, it wasn’t all that surprising to me when Offspring of Mean Mom was also a Mean Girl. Misery loves company, and Offspring Mean Girl was friends with Meanest Mean Girl.
I don’t remember the intricacies of the Mean except that it made me hate going to school. It made me tell stupid, untrue stories about myself in attempt to make people like me but which only gave them more ammunition. It made me lip-synch Madonna’s Crazy for You in the school talent show to get the attention of a boy I liked. It made me let my aunt perm my hair. (Sorry, Aunt M, I know you tried, and that was very cool.) It made the Meanest Mean Girl say super-hurtful things about me when I wasn’t around, which were all repeated to me by a shared “friend.” But, the harder I tried to change anyone’s mind, the more it was like grasping a fist-full of sand — it kept slipping through my fingers. Eighth grade culminated in Fighter Mean Girl cornering me in the quad one day, challenging me to a fight. Like with punches and kicking of asses and other stuff that is no fun. At all. Lucky for me, I had just watched a documentary on what to do if cornered by a mountain lion (because who doesn’t?!?) and went into survival mode by trying to make myself seem bigger and more scary than her. I started ranting like a lunatic, and it must’ve worked, because Fighter Mean Girl left without actually hitting me. Plus, there was no audience for this call out, which probably took all the fun out of it for her. So, yay?
Blissfully, the Mean Girls were mostly seventh graders. So, I left for high school, and they didn’t. Freshman year started out better. I met a boy. (As with many of the chapters in my life that would later start with that sentence, it didn’t end well.) Boy seemed nice. I let him hold my hand at school. I let him kiss me after we went out for ice cream. He wrote me cute notes and left them in my locker. I introduced him to a friend, who was in eighth grade. He had sex with her. Then he moved away to Costa Rica in a middle-of-the-night kind of thing. It was all too much for me. I had a vague idea what sex was from what I could make out from the static-y, blurred and flickering television signal for whatever cable porn channel wasn’t scrambled quite well enough. I wasn’t so eager to be a part of that, especially because the other resource I was given on this topic had really freaky pictures and words like ovulation, menses, semen, fertilization and vas deferens. So, here I am, barely 13 and wondering, is that what girls were supposed to do? Is that what boys wanted? I had no idea who to ask or even how to ask.
Instead, I started to just shut down. By the end of my Freshman year and the Carmel choir trip, I was beyond miserable. Still, I tried out for the cheerleading squad again, hoping that if I belonged to something it would make high school a little easier. My clothing woes would be solved a few days a week. I would always have something to do on Friday nights during football and basketball season. When I made it, seeing my name on that list was like someone throwing me a life preserver after treading water for a year.
And then there she was. Mean Mom. Again. You see, Mean Mom’s kid made the cheerleading squad too as an incoming freshman. We had some kind of meeting or practice – I don’t remember all the details. But, as the group dispersed, I noticed Mean Mom left her car keys behind. I picked them up and went looking for her. Everywhere. When I finally found her, she rolled up on me like an enraged Medusa, her blond hair flying and her crazy, blood-red, fake fingernails itching to rip open my flesh. She screamed at me, “DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FUNNY? DO YOU?! YOU LITTLE SHIT! YOU THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY TO HIDE FROM ME?!?!?!?” She ripped the keys from my outstretched hand as I stood with my mouth agape. I sat down and cried as she stormed away. Then I walked to the bus stop and debated whether and what to tell my mom. I was sure that Mean Mom was going to call my mom and “tell” on me, and I was actually afraid my mother wouldn’t believe me that I’d not done anything wrong. The only witnesses to this little episode were Mean Mom and me. I was 13. Who believes a teenager?
I left shortly after that for what would be my last full summer in Connecticut with my family there. I carefully planned this trip to make sure I got back to California in time for summer practice. Instead, when I got off the plane, my mother announced that she left Evil Stepfather while I was gone and moved us into an apartment in another city. As the realization that I would be changing schools yet again sank in, I felt a sense of betrayal so tangible that it cut me down to my quick. Not about the leaving – which was an about-damn-time kind of thing. But, was moving to an apartment in the same city out of the question? Really? Moving us 3,000 miles away from the family when you and Dad got divorced wasn’t enough?
So, sophomore year began in a yet another new school, where I knew no one. Luckily, a girl my age lived in the apartment next to us. She was very nice to me, and she took me to a party with her, where I met some other people. She let me sit next to her at lunch. And then I met the girl who would become my partner in crime for a while. But, there was no escaping the Mean Girls. The Mean Girls voted, and I was unlikeable. Near the end of the summer between junior and senior year, I got into trouble for something that cannot be discussed in a public forum until my children are MUCH, MUCH older, which got me grounded forever and ever. (Or three weeks. Same difference.) My sophomore-year friend — my Ace-Deuce, the Guess jeans to my Benetton sweater, the Rubik’s Cube to my Nintendo 64 — started carrying secret notes between me and the boy I was sort-of dating at the time. Then he broke up with me and started dating her. (Anyone sensing the pattern here, yet?)
Then I met THE boy. I cloaked myself in the emotional armor of a boyfriend. Honestly, he was more like my Friendboy; we hung out before the phrase “friends with benefits” even existed, but that captures it. I thought I could be my dorky self around him. We had microwave cake cookoffs. He introduced me to music that actually sounded like music. He let me sit with him under the “Mod Tree” at school even though my bright green and gold cheerleading uniform stuck out like the sorest of thumbs amid the see of black t-shirts and eyeliner. He was the reason I had something to do most Friday and Saturday nights when there wasn’t a game. I didn’t spend my time around him living in fear of saying something stupid. I felt like I mattered. His parents let me eat dinner at their house almost every night, and his mom sometimes helped me with my homework. It sounds nice, and in many ways it was. But, it is quite dangerous to invest that much of yourself — of your happiness and self-worth — in another person when you’re only 16, particularly when that other person is only 16, too. It makes you do stupid things, like go to the college he wants you to go to instead of the one you want to go to. Or believe him when he says you aren’t good enough for him when, in fact, you are way too good for him.
So, Mean Girls, here’s what I wish I could have said to you back then, when you were busy judging me from the comfort of your sheltered lives but I was scared shitless of you:
My parents divorced when I was 8. My dad was a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic and my mother has bipolar disorder marked by mild agoraphobia. My Evil Stepfather was completely incapable of any kind of rational conversation about emotional issues. (See next paragraph.) This meant I never had an adult at home I could look to for advice about friendships or boyfriends. So, Mean Girls, I had to find my way, and I made a lot of mistakes. Boys were especially complicated for me. I didn’t want a bad reputation, I wasn’t trying to embarrass you or myself, I just didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I did want girlfriends more than a boyfriend, but I didn’t know how to have both at the same time, and I had no one to ask for guidance. You weren’t offering any.
My mom remarried very quickly after my parents divorced, and she married an asshole. He treated me, my sister and his own two children like his personal servants. He made himself feel like a better person by embarrassing us. He made fun of my brother, who is gay, to his face. His own son. He got into a fist fight with my biological father in the middle of an airport, right in front of my sister and me. (Where is the TSA when you need it, huh?) When I was 15, he threw a handful of tampons at me while a male friend and I studied, because he thought it would be funny. He used the N-word like his life depended on it, no matter who was listening, including a friend who had just returned from a mission in Africa. He was a cop, and he never went off-duty. I stopped asking friends over to the house, because he’d invariably criticize their driving or parking skills. He allowed us kids to take 3-minute showers every other day. (There was a timer and a schedule in the only bathroom.) He never laid a hand on me, but I listened to him beat (and I do mean “beat”) my younger step-brother with a belt for getting a bad grade in school or not changing his underwear. I watched him once beat our dog with a shovel for digging holes in the backyard. (You know, for being a dog? Who, by the way, was the same dog who hid under my mother’s bed for two days after once accidentally biting her when trying to take a piece of chicken out of her hand.) In fact, the man was such a tyrant, that when he once caught me cutting school and kicking it at home with my boyfriend, I tried to commit suicide rather than face his wrath. I was so afraid of him, that even though I admitted during a “family session,” in the safety of my therapist’s office, that I hated him, I took it back amid a torrent of tears on the ride home in the car in the vain hope it would bring some peace. So, Mean Girls, while you were busy determining the social hierarchy, I was in a psychologist’s office just trying to get through another day.
My mother was a freak about money, and she often refused to pay for even basic things, like school lunch and clothes. So, Mean Girl who left a nasty note for me in our shared P.E. locker about borrowing your tennis shoes — I’m sorry. I did borrow your shoes without asking, because I was desperately trying not to fail P.E. for repeated dress-code violations. I was too embarrassed to tell you this, and I made only $3.25 per hour at my job, so it took me about a month to earn enough money to buy my own pair of tennis shoes. And Mean Girls who made fun of the way I dressed, yes I actually did dress that way on purpose, because it’s all I had to wear. I remember visiting the home of the CEO of the Mean Girls one day. She had a closet stuffed with new clothing, much of it still bearing department store tags, and she complained of having nothing to wear. It invoked a feeling in me that I later learned was called “stabby.” CEO Mean Girl worked at a popular clothing store. After one of the other Mean Girls (who were not inoculated against viral attacks by each other by virtue of exposure) had been in to try on clothes, CEO Mean Girl gleefully announced to the rest of the horde that Mean Girl was “fat” because she was a size 8. This, of course, wasn’t bitterness at all about the fact that “fat” Mean Girl was elected Homecoming Queen. You know what really gets me, though? CEO Mean Girl went on to become a child psychologist. At my kid’s school. Please file under WTF.
Having copious amounts of time to fill growing up, I read more books than Picasso had paint. It gave me a vocabulary of considerable breadth and depth. So, Mean Girls who made fun of they way I talk, I wasn’t trying to talk down to you, or embarrass you or make you feel inferior to me with my “five-dollar” words. I actually went into every conversation with you assuming you were intelligent enough to understand the words coming out of my mouth or that you’d care enough about yourself to look them up if you didn’t. I mean this sincerely and without an ounce of facetiousness. If there was anything I understood less than your disdain for me, it was repulsion by intellect.
In fairness, I know I was a Mean Girl myself sometimes. To all of the girls (or boys) in middle school, high school or college to whom I was mean, I am truly and deeply sorry. I needed to grow up and become an adult to realize that friendship is never forced. It is an organically occurring relationship based on common interests, mutual respect and fondness that isn’t dictated by where you sit in the quad. My greatest sadness when I look back on my high school years is how much time I wasted on people who weren’t worthy of it, who didn’t want it, and who didn’t care. You have no idea how many times – even now – I kick myself for rejecting anyone who reached out and offered me what I wanted most – a friend. The irony of my behavior is not lost on me. It’s no excuse, but please know this: I behaved badly toward you because I didn’t like myself very much. (I know that sounds kind of it’s-not-you-it’s-me-ish, but I swear it’s true.)
If anything has really brought this home for me, it is having children of my own. I watch my son, and I realize how much emotionally smarter he is than I was. Nate just is who he is, and his friends are as varied as you can imagine. But, the best moment came last year. For many years, Nate was friends with another boy, T. T was a little awkward and a lot hyper. Some of Nate’s other friends didn’t like T and, eventually, my son caved under the pressure of trying to mediate the relationships. Nate told T he didn’t want to be friends with him anymore. T was devastated. About four months later, without talking about it with me or anyone else (that I know of), Nate called T and apologized. Nate told T why he had dissed him and that he regretted caving to the “peer pressure.” T accepted the apology, Nate finds a way to hang out with T separate from his other friends and basically told the other friends to mind their own business about it. I was so proud of him, I thought I would burst. And, I was proud of myself, because he didn’t learn the Mean from me.
To my children, I say this:
- You are beautiful. Don’t hide it under makeup or clothes that you wear for others. The kind of people interested in you because of how you look instead of who you are are soul-sucking. They will not be there when you need something or someone, so don’t invite them into your life by your appearance. By the same token, if it makes you happy to grow your hair into dreadlocks, pierce your eyebrow, wear electric blue eyeshadow or wear a studded collar, I’m going to let you. I’m not going to lie to you – that doesn’t thrill me. But if you are strong enough to be your own person in that way, I’m not going to trample on that.
- You are smart. Don’t ever hide that, especially for the sake of trying not to hurt someone else’s “feelings.” If people can’t handle your brains or are intimidated by them, fuck them. (And I give you express permission to say “fuck them” in this context, but only in this context. At least until you’re 18 or I’m out of earshot. Got it?)
- You are worthy of love. Repeat after me. You. Are. Worthy. Of. Love. There will be Mean Girls (or Mean Boys), and I cannot stop that. But, if they vote you an outcast, please consider yourself lucky. Do not consider yourself unloved or unloveable. You are loved more than you could know, and there are kindred spirits out there with whom you can find friendship. But most of all, please love yourself. When you cannot do that, you make bad choices that you will regret later in life. You let others’ hearts and minds dictate your life’s path instead of listening to your own heart and mind. You know you better than anyone. Be the CEO, CFO and President of your life. Papa and I will always be your Board of Directors.
- I will rip the face off anyone who hurts you. Okay, not really. But, I will want to. So, please, please, please know that you can come talk to me about anything. I will be there for you. (Cue cheesy Friends intro.) I can’t be your friend just yet, but I am your protector, your guide, your teacher, your counselor, your safe haven, your nurturer. I will do whatever I can to salve the hurt of your wounds. I will go to bat for you, and I will swing for the fences. Later in our lives, when I’m ridiculously old, and if I’ve done my job well, we will be friends.
- The Mean comes from fear. Some people are afraid to be alone. Some are afraid to be different. Some are afraid to be found out for who they really are because it doesn’t meet the expectations or demands of others. These fears come out as the Mean. Remember that before you lash out at the Mean Girl or Mean Boy who gets under your skin. Lashing out only makes you another Mean Girl or Mean Boy, no matter how justified you feel or others might think you are. Live your life, and pity the Mean. But, don’t feed it.
- The Mean forget; the victims don’t. I am 40 years old, and I have no problem recalling the Mean I experienced almost 30 years ago. In excruciating detail. But, my guess is that if you could ask any of the Mean Girls involved, they may not even remember me let alone the events I’m describing. Remember that your words and actions are powerful. They can hurt worse than fists. Speak, write, post, tweet, You Tube, text and email with care. Treat others as you wish to be treated. A moment of funny for you may be a lifetime of hurt for someone else.
If you remember these things, the Mean cannot hurt you and you cannot hurt with the Mean.