Monday, April 03, 2006

mean girls

I have a confession to make. I was a mean girl.

This is hard for me to believe or accept, all these years later. I'm a feminist raising a feminist daughter, and the whole mean girls phenomenon makes me so angry. Mariah went through it a little bit, being on the receiving end of mean comments from popular girls, though nothing like what we saw in the movie. I mean, the whole use of three-way calling to humiliate each other, the rules, the ritual quality of it all, that didn't happen. It was more garden-variety testing of limits and of the rules of popularity, and we did our best to alleviate it with good friends who didn't do that, a change of schools, and lots of talk at home.

So it pains me to tell my story, but I've told it to her more than once. And yesterday I told it again, because my dear dear friend, Mariah's godmother, who was on the receiving end of my meanness, was visiting, and the subject came up. Turns out she had completely blocked the incident for years, but had recently remembered it and wanted to check her recollection against mine. I don't remember all the details, including who started it, but I remember enough.

The scene is a New England boarding school. We are all seniors. We are not the popular kids. A few years back someone had dubbed the popular kids "the Rat Pack," and dubbed us "the Book Pack." We were smart, and didn't care who knew it, not the prettiest or the most popular girls by any means. But we were a pretty tight-knit group, especially at the core, which had been established by sophomore year.

I can't remember why we did this. Some of us were particularly close to one teacher, a guy who taught history and was funny and a little subversive in a very conservative environment. As often happens in boarding schools, we formed a little coterie around him, a coterie that probably existed more in our minds than anywhere. Two of us became the managers of the (boys') team he coached. It got us out of gym class, into contact with boys who otherwise wouldn't have given us the time of day, and (most importantly, I think) further into his orbit. We weren't allowed in the boys' locker room so our duties were minimal.

For some reason some of us decided to pretend that he was taking us on an international trip, and --the most important and mean part-- that the spaces on the trip were limited and my dear friend was not going to be invited. Now, we didn't tell her this outright. That would have been too easy, and not mean enough. Rather, we spent a week or so in whispered conversations which we broke off when she came into view. We dropped the name of the city we'd be visiting, and then looked stricken. We staged a phone call or two to make her think we had tickets. We even, I think, involved the teacher. (With hindsight I am appalled that he would have played along. What was he thinking? What were we?)

After a week or ten days one of us--not me--confessed, and apologized. Later we came up with another scheme that involved the excluded one, but that one was less successful and nowhere near as mean. To this day I feel guilty for what I did to my friend. I've apologized over and over again--and we have remained friends, for all that--but I still can't quite get the taste out of my mouth. I was surprised she'd been able to forget it, since I never have. But that's how these things work, I guess. It had turned into something she couldn't think about, while I always had to.

I know I did it precisely because we weren't the popular ones, the Rat Pack. They did this kind of thing all the time--then again, they really went on international trips without each other. We didn't live that kind of life, none of us, which is why this was so effective, and so mean.

Mariah and Mark just stare openmouthed when I tell this story. They can't square it with the person they know, and I'm grateful for that. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Mark thinks it couldn't have happened if we weren't in boarding school, but I'm not sure. It might not have gone on so long, or involved the teacher--I'm not sure teachers outside of boarding schools have quite the involvement in their students' lives that our teachers did--but the stories I hear from middle and high school suggest that this kind of thing does, after all, still happen. I could spin a story about how this demonstrates our creativity, our ability, in fact, to spin stories, but that would miss the point. We were mean and awful and I wish we hadn't been, but we were.


Becca said...

Oh my goodness, that is really mean! Speaking of boarding school, have you seen this: (it's mainly drugs and sex, but she goes to boarding school).

Susan said...

Libby, this is such a powerful post. I think ALL of us are capable of everything, but I also think much of the Mean Girls literature tends to focus on the victims, and how to support them, rather than how to deal with figuring out who is doing mean stuff and why, and figuring out what THEY need.

I don't think I was that mean. I was more of the chameleon type who drifted between groups. But in 6th grade I was involved in the phenomenom of "slam books" which of course wreaked total social havoc. I was just wildly curious to know what people thought of me. Someone wrote (about me) "Don't get too close!" and I don't know if it meant in the emotional sense, or that I had B.O.

I also had a best friend who identified intensely with Harriet the Spy. We kept a Harriet style notebook where we wrote about people in our class, although not all that meanly. And the same thing happened to us: people found our notebook and passed it around, but she ended up taking most of the heat from it, not me. I felt badly about that. And then she moved to Michigan and people pretty much forgot about it.

Ahh, high school! Junior high! Memories!

Libby said...

Susan, thanks for that insight. It's really helpful to me to think about why I wanted to do that: I am pretty sure the ringleader was someone who seemed much cooler to me, more "in," in some important way, and I had something (access, imagination) that she wanted to use... Or that's how I imagine it went, anyway.

Becca, it looks like she's posting her old teen diary? Weird!

Mamacita said...

Thanks for sharing that, Libby. As a teacher of boys, your story made me think about how differently boys relate, at least at the preadolescent stage. Shunning and leaving another out of the group is a tactic that is rarely used among the boys I teach. And playing jokes on each other -- even mean ones -- is forgiveable. They act out their cruelty more often through physical intimidation (the bigger, most athletic guys call the shots) and wits (a sharp, sarcastic sense of humor gets a lot of mileage).