The XX Factor

I Was a Mean Girl: Before I Was a Rabbi, I Was a Lavender Lady


Were you a mean girl?

Photo by Igor Balasanov/iStockphoto

After Emily Bazelon’s new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, came out last month, Double X wondered what it was like to be on the giving end of schoolyard torture. Do bullies know that they’re bullies? Do they regret their actions in hindsight? Can they change? We published a confession by Carly Pifer, “I Was A Mean Girl,” and asked readers to submit their own stories of cruelty and (perhaps) redemption. The series runs this week. Entry No. 1 is printed below. 

A few years ago, I ran into the father of an old school friend on the street. The friend and I had attended the same school for many years, but she had left during middle school. I had not seen her since then.

After a few pleasantries, the conversation went as follows:

Me: I really liked that school.
Him: My daughter hated it so much that we pulled her out. There was a group there called the “Lavender Ladies.” They made her miserable.
Me, awkwardly: Huh.

We parted ways—and I felt awful. Because I was in the Lavender Ladies.

So I went home that evening, and I lost a lot of sleep. Then next day, I emailed the man and asked for his daughter’s contact information. And I called her.

After a few pleasantries, the conversation went as follows:

Me: I saw your father last week.
Her: Yes.
Me: We spoke about the school that you and I went to.
Her: Yes.
Me: He said that your life was made miserable by the Lavender Ladies.
Her: Yes.
Me: Well, I was in the Lavender Ladies.
Her: I know.
Me: I’m calling to apologize.
Her: (silence)

I said, “To be honest, I can’t even remember what I did. But I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

And then she said, “don’t worry about it” and “it was so long ago” and “you were the nicest of the group” (untrue). All the right words; how kind of her.

Later that afternoon I sat down with my 6-year-old daughter and told her the story. I said that there was someone whose feelings I hurt 25 years ago and she still remembers. “You hurt her feelings, Mommy? Was she mean first?” “No.” “So why were you mean to her?” “I don’t know,” I said, which was somewhat true but also a much easier answer than “let me explain something to you about middle school.” She’ll have time enough to figure that out.

I think about this woman a lot. Much more, I would hope, than she ever thinks about me. There was nothing overt—no graffiti on the locker, no fake love letters. We were way too smart for that. It was more subtle fare: rolled eyes, hyperbolized gossip, snickering as someone walks past, closed circles at the lunch table. My sixth-grade teacher began the school year with the following statement: “There will be no cattiness in this classroom. Do you hear me, Lavender Ladies?” Our reputation preceded us. We were mean girls.

The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.

What part of me is still a mean girl? I carry this question with me every day. I am a rabbi, so I consider what is, for me, one of Judaism’s most poignant teachings—repentance is never complete until, given the chance to sin again in the same way, we refuse. There are still too many days of awakening in the morning, offering prayers of gratitude for this next, beautiful day and then finding myself saying something mean to a loved one, or gossiping about an acquaintance, or just cursing at someone when he or she cuts me off in traffic. I think of this girl and make a commitment to be a better human being but then fail, yet again, to stop doing whatever it is for which I have asked forgiveness. And then I must remind myself: The goal here is both the ends and the means. I will never be the truly holy soul I aspire to be, but I will continue to try. Life flows not in perfect circles or straight lines but in spirals. We are imperfect, and that is to be expected.