Dear Mean Girl from My Freshman Year,
I remember you.
“Cool” is not a word people usually associate with me. That’s OK. I’m awkward, suck at small talk, and never know what to do with my hands.
I briefly held a seat at the cool kids table in eighth grade. That was the year I miraculously had the “right clothes” and one of the in-crowd girls took a liking to me. I happily rode her coattails through the school year with visions of four shiny happy years of moderate high school popularity ahead.
Then we moved.
Our new house was only 30 miles from our old one, but it might as well have been on another planet. I started high school, once again that awkward girl who never knew what to do with her hands. My stepmother convinced me to give the pep squad a try. She’d been a cheerleader and firmly believed pep squad was the gateway to becoming a cheerleader and that cheering was the gateway to teenage happiness. I had my doubts about this, but it got me out of P.E., so I didn’t need much convincing. Because public changing areas and waist-high polyester shorts.
When we weren’t clapping and chanting at Friday night football games, we spent fifth period in the school auditorium. We occasionally practiced clapping and chanting, but the hour was mostly a blow-off. I spent most of my time writing in my journal, occasionally joining in the conversations around me about important stuff, like whether peanut butter was fattening.
“Jill, you stink. Did you take a bath last night?”
The sweet, girlish voice rang out from two rows behind me. Blood rushed to my face, and my heart began to pound as I tried to figure out what to do. Ignore? Engage? Cry?
I dipped my nose to my chest and—well, you know—sniffed myself. It was an unconscious reaction to “you stink.” I smelled like Jean Nate after bath splash and Aqua Net. I had, in fact, taken a bath the night before and a shower with a shampoo that morning. I was 14 and in that “obsessed with hygiene” stage. Because boys.
I did not stink.
“Look, she’s smelling herself! Ewwww! You STINK. You’re GROSS.”
I’m not sure what I did to attract the attention of this person, and given the distance between us, I’m not sure how she came to the conclusion that I smelled bad.
There must have been 40 onlookers, all freshmen girls. A few snickered. A few cast sympathetic glances in my direction. No one said anything in my defense, and thankfully, no one else jumped on the “you stink” bandwagon. I ignored her because I didn’t know what else to do. I felt the sting of hot tears, but thankfully, I didn’t unleash the waterworks, which would probably have made the situation worse.
I’d never crossed paths or exchanged words with this girl. I didn’t even know her name until that day. Aside from fifth period pep squad, we didn’t share classes or friends. I often wondered what I’d done to deserve her wrath, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I’d done nothing. She was just a mean girl who sniffed out (no pun intended) weakness and vulnerability.
I was the awkward new girl, struggling to find her way and fit in. I thought of my elevated eighth grade cool kid status. She’d never have picked on me then. I’d been part of a posse of girls who’d have jumped in her mean little face if she’d picked on one of their own. But here, I was alone, and she knew it. Bullies don’t pick on the strong; they pick on the weak.
Fifth period became hell. I started skipping and going to sit in the library. As if that weren’t enough, my own personal mean girl taunted me between second and third periods. We’d pass each other, going in opposite directions while going to our respective classes. She’d always shout something ugly in my direction. She’d insult my hair, my blouse, my book bag, the way I walked…whatever caught her attention.
I found an alternative route to history class, cutting through a building and looping around the school’s courtyard to avoid her. I had to jog to make it before the tardy bell. I’d sweat and worry if people would point at me and tell me I smelled bad.
Eventually, I went to my guidance counselor and swapped Pep Squad for P.E. Polyester shorts were not looking so bad now. I continued with my alternate route to history for the rest of the school year. It was a big school, and I managed to avoid her for pretty much the rest of my otherwise uneventful high school years.
My memories of being picked on are extremely vivid. I can recall every nuance of my mean girl’s face and hear her shrilly insults in my head. I remember the deflated feeling I got when she insulted my new brown striped blouse with the gold metallic threads. I’d loved that blouse so much and had to beg my dad to let me buy it at Frost Brothers department store because it was far, far out of our normal price range for school clothes.
So, would you be surprised if I told you my freshman year was 35 years ago?
I have never forgotten what it’s like to feel small and picked on. I’m a relatively successful and secure adult. If the girl who made my freshman year miserable—or anyone else for that matter—picked on me today, I wouldn’t put up with it. I’d call her out and stand up for myself.
My mean girl and I have a mutual friend. I see her “likes” and “comments” on Facebook statuses occasionally, and I always cringe when I see her name. I Facebook stalked her (you know you’d do it, too). She’s a mom now, too. Her online presence screams normal and pleasant. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she’s probably a lovely person today. I’m sure her 14-year-old mean girl behavior doesn’t define who she is today. But I still cringe because her 14-year-old mean girl behavior defines who I am today and how I parent.
I am not perfect. There are days when I struggle to be barely pleasant to other people. But, knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of bullying helps keep me in check. I try to be kind and consider how the things I do and say will affect other people. I try to teach my kids to do the same. My biggest hope for my children is that they be kind human beings. Sure, I want them to be great students and good athletes. But kindness is more important.
A boy in my hometown recently committed suicide because he was bullied by other kids. Their teasing and taunting extended to social media—something I didn’t have to deal with when I was in high school. The cruel words of others caused this boy to feel hopeless and apply a permanent solution to what was probably a temporary problem.
My mean girl made me cry on many occasions, but thankfully, there was no such thing as Instagram way back then. When I left school, she didn’t follow me. Nowadays, the bullies can continue to taunt outside of school, at all hours. Social media makes that easy. If cyber-bullying had existed back then, would I be a different person today?
Yes, mean girl, I haven’t forgotten you. You might have forgotten me. You might not remember the things you said, but I sure as hell do. I don’t know if my feelings can be appropriately labeled a grudge, but I do know that my high school memories involving you make me resolve to reinforce the importance of kindness to my own children. Memories of your words still sting me, but having one of my kids be the bully would sting more.
Hurtful words can last a lifetime. Let’s make raising kind kids a priority.
The words and actions of today might be someone’s painful memory in 10, 20, 30, or more years. The words and actions of today might be the memory that makes someone smile in 10, 20, 30, or more years.
Choose kindness. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always the most important thing.