It’s the start of another school year. In Boston, moving trucks piloted by inexperienced drivers are getting stuck in the Storrow Drive underpass. The “seasonal aisle” at the drugstores are wiped clear of window fans and hula hoops; in their place are notebooks and backpacks.
And all over Facebook, I’m seeing pictures of my friends’ kids, dressed and ready for the first day of (____) grade.
A close friend of mine texted me a picture of her daughter, all ready for her first day of middle school. She looked cute as all get-out, and I joked about how sassy she was. And later that day my friend texted me again, and my heart broke.
It’s a story I know all too well. There’s another girl, see. This other girl has found something objectionable about my friend’s daughter. Something totally unforgivable. The wrong shoes. Laughing too much. Liking “weird” things. That tangled-up terrain of adolescent girls is virtually impossible to navigate, no matter how prepared you think you are.
My friend told me what happened. This little pack of girls shunned her daughter. The years go by, the technology changes, and yet this is still the most vicious, effective weapon in the entire shitty arsenal. My friend has been up since 3 o’clock this morning, trying to figure out what to do. She lives in a small community. The girl’s mother heads up her own pack of “mean mommies.” They wield a considerable amount of power, just by dint of being petty, garbage people.
I’ve been sitting with this all morning, feeling helpless. I am almost 46 years old, with pretty specific and desirable computer skills. I’m a homeowner. My life is full of amazing, creative, compassionate people like my friend and her daughter.
But right now? I am 12 years old. I am waking up in my friend’s daughter’s head, feeling that tightness in my chest, the physical manifestation of a kind of terror that no kid should have to feel. Trying to figure out a way to negotiate my way through the day ahead. Can I fake being sick again? And if I can’t, how can I lay low enough so that I won’t be noticed, and subsequently humiliated? Will anyone eat lunch with me? What am I doing wrong?
I can’t tell my friend: “It gets better.” In the here and now, that’s useless information. I think about myself at that age, listening to the platitudes of well-meaning adults (“They’re just jealous.” “Ignore them, and they’ll get bored.”) and thinking, bullshit. The future was impossible to see, beyond the next day. I enjoyed school up until 6th grade. By 7th grade, my days were spent trying to will the clock’s hands to move faster. Even home ceased being a refuge, when the girls in my class decided that the chief entertainment during their sleepovers was calling me, making increasingly bizarre accusations, erupting into spasms of cackling before hanging up, leaving me even more bewildered and horrified.
With all of the bullying awareness these days, one would think this kind of manipulative, nasty behavior would be checked. It isn’t. Insular, narrow-minded thinking gets passed down generation to generation. If your kid is being bullied, he or she needs to get a thicker skin, or maybe try harder not to be such a magnet by stuffing everything down and showing no traces of real personality. And if you’re an adult talking about what happened to you, and why the events of decades past STILL inform some of your reactions today, you’re soft. You need to get over it. You’re a “libtard” for demanding administrative intervention when “kids will be kids.”
I can’t offer anything to my friend and her daughter today, other than an ear and a shoulder and a broken heart. So I put a plea out here- try not to let the heaviness of whatever you’re carrying drag you down to a level where you cease to muster empathy. I include myself in this. It’s much easier, actually, to be kind. It takes considerably less energy than drawing a box around someone and believing they’re responsible for their isolation and unhappiness, or that it’s inevitable. That’s your kid being shunned at the bus stop. That’s your kid being told – on the daily – what a stupid, ugly person she is. Kids are still somehow learning about the currency of cruelty, how to dole it out just so.
I want so much for my friend’s daughter to have a better day today.