Time-travel with me. The year was 1957. We had just moved to Cedarhurst from Queens, and it was the first day of class at Number Three School on Broadway. I slid into my chair in Mrs. Haggerty’s sixth-grade classroom, and knew I would fall out of the same chair, dead, in a minute if I couldn’t get away from the stares and whispers of the other girls.
After a few minutes of mounting distress, I burst into tears, thus condemning myself to an entire school year of teasing and ostracism and bullying. You can’t cry. It just feeds the frenzy. In 1957 there was no counseling, no help, just day after day of preteen hell.
I was actually one of the few, possibly the only, sixth-grader in America to get the “black spot” from a clique of girls in the class. Do you know your “Treasure Island”? The pirates passed a piece of paper with a black spot on it to someone about to be killed. So, did It make it better that I was the target of a literary group of mean girls? When I opened the folded-up note left on my desk and saw the black spot, I knew I was doomed.
I wasn’t your regulation kid. I couldn’t help that. The other girls were consumed with “American Bandstand,” a daily live TV dance show out of Philly. They followed that program, and the real-life teens who appeared on the show, with a devotion I could neither fathom nor fake. I just wanted to come home after school, cut up a few oranges and retreat to my room with a book. Reading “Gone With the Wind,” I consumed a small grove.
Eventually I made friends and kept friends and got married and had children and then grandchildren. What is a troubling issue in my granddaughters’ lives? Mean girl power plays, cliques and the popularity drama humming beneath the radar of most parents and teachers. Girls are still forming exclusive groups in elementary and junior and senior high school; they are still finding someone to be “it”; they are still causing other girls enormous emotional stress and anxiety.
And it is mostly girls. Boys interact in entirely different ways. Of course, there are bullies and guys’ cliques, but girls seem to deploy meanness in more creative and devastating ways.
I asked a few of my friends if they remember if they were mean girls in school, and every one of us recalled whether we were in the cool, mean group or with the uncool outsiders. And everyone who copped to being mean acknowledged that they knew it was wrong, but they were afraid that if they didn’t join the power clique, they would become a target. Pretty savage equation, isn’t it? Meanness equals survival.
In the decades since I survived the black spot, psychologists, educators and parents have studied the relationships among young girls and defined the behaviors and the interactions. But the meanness still exists in the whispers and the pacts to leave someone out and the comments on someone’s unacceptable clothes or habits or affect. There are attempts at discussion groups and sensitization groups and psychological services in the schools, but the toxic comments have leapt to the internet, where it is so much easier to target a classmate, anonymously and persistently.
“Mean Girls,” the show and the movie, was hilarious, intuitive and sharp in its send-up of the popular girls who reigned supreme at a typical American high school. The production, which was, first of all, entertainment, glossed over the real pain young girls feel as victims of a mean-girl power surge.
Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” urges parents to look at their own behavior, how they talk about neighbors or friends and the capacity they model for accepting people into their circle.
Other suggestions she offers: Stay engaged with your child. Realize it isn’t only other
kids who are the mean girls. Contact the school and calmly convey your concerns. Band together with other parents to discuss the issues.
I’m not sure what to say to my own granddaughters. Perhaps remind them to keep talking to the trusted adults in their lives. Perhaps remind them that they are surviving a once-in-a-generation pandemic with courage and grace, and they can survive this, too. Look at me. I got the black spot 64 years ago and I’m still here. I don’t even remember the names of the girls who tried to ruin my sixth-grade life.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.