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. 4 is printed below.
I was a grown woman when I outmeaned the meanest girl in my elementary school, a cheerleader with brilliant blue eyes and slightly bucked teeth that actually made her prettier in a Taylor Swift kind of way. Maybe she taunted me a little in grade school, but she didn’t hurt me until high school, after she’d outgrown her meanness. We had an unspoken agreement, to limit our conversations to our walks home from school, when no one was looking. I reveled in my role as her confidante. We’d stand across the street from my house, talking and laughing—she had a big cackle for a petite girl. In the winter, we’d shiver under the naked elm trees, but we both knew it would have been weird for me to invite her inside. In front of other kids, though, we never spoke, and when I didn’t make the long guest list for her graduation party, I had to face the truth that our friendship, or that I, threatened her golden girl status.
In my 20s, our professional worlds collided in a glitzy Las Vegas hotel. She couldn’t have been happier to see me, and we lingered at the top of an escalator and chatted until my toes grew numb from standing too long in my pumps. This was the ‘90s, and I was sporting an Amanda Woodward mini, feeling avenged for the awkwardness that had plagued me during high school. The mean girl was talking to me in public!
We didn’t cross paths again until our 20th high school reunion. I was living in Washington, D.C., but I made the trip back to Milwaukee because life was sweet for me. I’d married my soul mate, recently given birth to my first child, and reached one of those professional rest stops that only come once in a long while. It wasn’t until I started walking toward the reunion venue, my husband’s elbow looped through mine, that I began wondering if the mean girl would turn up. Of course she would. Popular girls live to revisit their glory days, I figured.
This night, we’d return to who we were in high school, and with each breath of the familiar lake-scented air, I felt more deflated.
I walked directly to the bar and ordered myself a rum and Diet Coke, and my husband looked at me askance. I don’t drink well. I engaged in boozy conversations with random classmates and perused old photos, wondering why we’d considered mullets a good idea.
I was deep in conversation with one of my classmates when the mean girl tapped my arm. I kept talking. She called my name, and I knew that voice better than anyone’s, but I shifted around to turn my back to her. Finally, she grabbed my arm. “Hello, did you see me standing here?”
I turned to look at her. I stared at her for a second longer than I would have had I not been drinking. She was still serviceably pretty, but her eyes had dulled to a flat blue. And then I remembered the way she’d often look at me when I’d pass her while she was talking to a member of her caste, the way she’d fix her gaze over my head. I felt a small adrenalin surge as I shifted my eyes so they traveled over the silky hair that I’d coveted, toward the bar, and went to speak with someone more interesting. I don’t remember if I excused myself.
I relished all 40 seconds of punishing her for the sin I was in the middle of committing. It felt delicious to make her feel small. Later of course, when I discovered that her marriage had fallen apart and she’d been experiencing health problems, it did not feel quite as delicious.
Does that make me a mean girl? Ish. More like a girl who despite my best scrubbing, couldn’t remove that stubborn grease stain from my psychic blouse. Funny the things we hold on to, so that we feel justified in lashing back.
Find a mother of a girl, any age will do, and I’ll bet she has an anecdote about a mean girl who has harmed her or her daughter. I’ll bet another dollar that you will NOT hear that mother reflect on instances of her own mean behavior. Can we challenge ourselves to come up with some new or adjunct language for mean girl? How about angry girl? Fearful girl? Insecure girl? Perhaps this would shift our conversation to one of less judgment and more compassion.