I read an article today that posited that “mean girls” grow up to be mean women.
This can be accurate. But it’s lazy. People who never change from how they were in childhood are kind of boring to me. It shows no growth, no maturity. Fortunately, this position can also be false.
When I was in middle school, I was trying very hard to belong to a couple of different groups of girls who were all friends. I was an outsider to both groups and while they talked to me sometimes, and we all shared space together every day in classes and extracurricular activities like track, I only had one or two girls who were actually friends, who invited me to their houses, who played with me, etc.
I kept trying to forge connections with the girls in these two groups. There was a girl who had been sort of nice to me, in a distant kind of way, let’s call her Halle. On the playground one day, I overheard this other girl, “Linda,” bad-mouthing Halle behind her back. She was really saying unkind things, trashing on how the girl dressed and so forth. I felt bad for Halle, and I went to her in confidence and told her, I don’t think Linda is your friend. She was talking about you behind your back. And A, B, and C person were all there and they were agreeing with her. She thanked me for telling her and I thought that was that.
The next day on the playground, Linda marched up to me with her posse behind her, told me to keep my big mouth shut and smacked me HARD on the face. I was completely shocked. I was still a pretty nice girl, and the thought of hitting her back or starting a fight with someone who assaulted or challenged me was still a good year or two away, and I remember crying in shock. Halle had clearly said something to her, and now Linda and all her friends hated me. When I saw Halle, I hoped she would want to be friends, but she just ignored me. Later in the year, she was friends with all those girls again, and I was still on the outside trying to get in. I felt stupid for the whole thing, for saying anything. Like I should have just agreed to talk about this girl behind her back, or shut up and said nothing, if I wanted to be in with the in crowd. A few of the girls still talked to me, but everyone was at arms’ distance, nobody would really let me in.
The other group of girls seemed nicer, but they too talked behind each other’s backs about each other. I kept my mouth shut, having learned my lesson, and hoped to be better friends with some of them.
At the end of the year, there was a big talent show and I remember being hurt but not particularly surprised that Halle and Linda and their group had all elected to do a dance number together to a fun song from a musical. They shook their little hips and waved their little fists and I felt like I was sitting in the last row of the auditorium alone.
A few acts later, the girls from the second group came on. They had also decided to do a dance number, to a pop hit on the radio. I remember sitting in the audience crying and feeling so left out, so humiliated, like there was nothing I could do to get anyone to like me. Nobody would ever invite me to be in their group. Nobody would want to include me.
Once I got out of that town, I realized that it was a small-town problem that was instantly fixed by going to a college with people from all walks of life, all parts of the world, many different cultures and backgrounds. I had no trouble making friends at all. People liked me, they interacted with me, they respected me, they laughed with me, some folks looked up to me and others I respected so much it was a thrill when I got to work with them on stage or move across the floor with them in dance classes.
Even some mean girls can grow and change. I’ve encountered both Halle and Linda at high-school reunions. Linda still hates me and we’ve never exchanged a kind word. She is unchanged from her school years, as best I can tell. Halle and I are very different people, with very different politics and lives. Yet she reached out to me after one of the reunions to apologize for having been such a bitch in school. So has another girl from her clan. With age and wisdom and their own share of struggles comes perspective. With their own children to raise has come an awareness of the meanness of exclusion and bullying, and they have worked very hard to bring about change through their own kids.
Even decades later, those apologies have filled holes in my soul I didn’t know were still there, as they scabbed over and healed with a bump. It’s nice to patch some of those potholes.
I see stories in the news now of young people doing great things. People that were the age these girls were when they were so fucking awful to me all the time, making fun of my clothes, saying to my face that they didn’t understand why my boyfriend was dating me, picking on me when I got a bad grade, never picking me for teams in gym, laughing at me when I tried out for cheerleading, excluding me over and over again. Now, I see young folks asking physically and mentally challenged people to the prom, young people being open and proud about their gender, their preferences, girls taking girls to homecoming, students doing acts of kindness and charity that nobody would have done back in my day, at least not at my school.
People have the power to change and the power to decide to be different. Maybe that’s what you’ll decide to do this year – be different. Be better. Be kinder. Nicer. More empathetic. Stop judging people and making assumptions. Reach out to someone with whom things were bad, and fill in that pothole, if you can. Help out at a charity. Bring dinner to someone who is struggling. Check up on people and be an ear for their problems. Tell someone you are sorry.
Be better in 2019.