NEWSFLASH! NEWSFLASH! The fabulous ladies (HARLEY JANE KOZAK, NANCY MARTIN, SUSAN MCBRIDE and SARAH STROHMEYER) over at LIPSTICK CHRONICLES invited me over for a Q&A that will run over the next couple days. Check out the site, stay awhile, then bookmark it. LIPSTICK CHRONICLES is one of my favorite stops on the web. I love all their books but I bet Harley Jane would be surprised to know that Annabelle and Tony, in my opinion, had one of the most kick-ass love stories of all time. Now, how many of you know what THAT means?
My 10-year-old niece, whom I’ve talked about on this blog, entered 5th grade two weeks ago and she’s currently swimming eye-ball deep in the shark infested waters of MEAN GIRLS. I linked to the movie but I don’t think TINA FEY’S screenplay came even close to covering how damaging cliques can be. I remember watching an episode of OPRAH where guests talked about violence amongst teenage boys. Oprah responded with a bewildered look then asked, “Girls don’t have that, do they?” The female reporter snapped back, “No, girls just tease each other into anorexia.” The audience laughed, as did Oprah, but I was able to see flickers of pain on the faces of a few women. Being a “mean girl” or a HEATHER (depending on your generation), being the victim of one, or being an outsider kid can make or break the creative spirit.
My heart aches for my niece who has taken to coming home and climbing into bed at three o’clock in the afternoon. She’s in the very strange position of being the girl whose presence decides which group is in or out. (Now, there’s an interesting premise for a story). These social maneuvering are awkward in elementary school, clunky in junior high and down to a stealth-like science in high school. She’s trying to figure out – with that big heart of hers – how to make everyone happy. Luckily, she’s very open in explaining to my sister, and her husband, what’s going on and how it makes her feel. I imagine that it would be ten times worse if you didn’t feel that she could turn to her parents.
Now, as an adult looking back, it’s easy to recognize that the behavior of these girls comes from a deep well of insecurity, but as a child when you’re smack-dab in the middle of the drama it feels dark and all-consuming. My niece’s week started off strong until two separate cliques noticed she was making a splash with the boys in the upper grades. (I don’t remember that crap starting so early but it’s been a long time since I was 10 years old). Once that fact was established it was no longer acceptable for her to play with the smart, shy, respectful group of playmates she’s had since third grade. My sister loves these girls and has encouraged her daughter’s friendship with them. Unfortunately, they’re not in the same class this year which put her on a collision course with the sharks.
Yesterday it came to a head when two separate groups marched up to where she was playing with her old friends. My niece greeted them but was cut-off by one of the leaders (isn’t there always a leader, or Queen Bee in millennium parlance) who said, “Why are you playing with those girls? You can either come with us or go with them.” At that point Queen Bee pointed to the other group. A rival clique, just so you understand, but one that was much more socially acceptable. “You have to choose. Us or them.” How scary is that? My niece said that the confrontation made her stomach hurt. She tried to explain that she liked the friends she had but that wasn’t good enough. The girls told her to choose anyway. It made her cry and it sent me spiraling backwards in time.
From kindergarten to eighth grade I had the same group of girlfriends. We were thrown together mostly out of proximity to one another and not because of genuine love or affection. We spent a lot of time together but towards the end of the friendship, I remember waking up exhausted at the idea of spending the day with them. Their main pastime seemed to be “talking shit” about whichever girl wasn’t there that day, or using deep, dark secrets to drill into the wounds of the most vulnerable.
Not my thing, then or now, and I was grateful to escape into the world of books. I read constantly, like my life depended on it and maybe it did. My creative life certainly depended on protecting myself from these girls because even when I was most enamored with the Queen Bee herself, I was protective enough of my writing to keep it away from her. None of them ever read a word. Once, just before I broke away, I wiled away an entire summer reading book after book after book. The phone rang constantly with invitations to hang out, go to a movie or shopping. I refused them all, preferring to lounge with a book or the “novel” I had started. Finally, at the end of a slow, hot summer, I looked up long enough to try out for a city wide cheerleading squad that supported a local football team.
Now, I understand how absurd it sounds that I escaped a group of mean girls by becoming a CHEERLEADER but that’s exactly what happened. Mainly, I broke the connection which was the most important event of that summer. Once I made the squad, I was away from the neighborhood for hours at a time which meant my old group faded further and further into the background. How did the barracudas respond? The only way they knew how. The set out to “kick my ass”. It was the only course of action for a deserter. I had to pay. Be made an example.
So, for one afternoon, they placed repeated phone calls trying to lure me outside and away from my parents. (Isn’t that what predators do in the wild?). They used their sweetest voices to tell me that they missed me. They invited me to join them on the hill. I refused. For one simple reason. I was almost at the end of a really good book and I didn’t want to put it down. That was the one and only reason I didn’t go. I didn’t have any premonitions about my undoing and I wasn’t afraid of them. I was just too wrapped up in the book I was reading to stop. Saved from an ass-whipping by a book! (Why don’t teachers and librarians play up that angle? It would make a great poster).
Anyway, just as the sun was going down and the final girl had made her plea another one called to tell me it was all a set up. I was shocked. I hadn’t suspected a thing, and I’d moved so far past those shenanigans in three weeks, that I felt like I’d been body slammed into a pool of ice water. Or reality. On top of all that I was hurt. Just hurt down to my core. While it was true that we were drifting apart, it was also true that those girls had been my friends for years. How could they do that? In the hours that followed I made the decision to be ruthless in my selection of friends from there on out. I remembered all the times my body, and stomach, clenched up while I was around them. I remembered what it felt like to be constantly on alert, waiting for a shoe to drop, or to simply join them outside one day and learn that it was my turn to be ostracized. I never could figure out the criteria for being exiled but I did know what it felt like not to speak up when it happened to someone else.
Do I exaggerate? Possibly. But too many friends have recollections of similar behavior and the fact that my niece is experiencing a variation means that my version is pretty damn close to the truth. After talking to my sister I sat down and wrote my niece a five page letter. Her life is just too big to feel so small. I started off by catching her up on Kobe, then I talked about the excitement of 5th grade and the upcoming years, then I went on to discuss our trip to Hawaii one day, her future travels and her desire to be (in no particular order) to be a fashion designer, writer, director and artist. Then, I told her a story about making sure that she protects her “creative spirit”. That creativity, whether it be through painting, writing, singing or dancing has saved, and sustained the life of many people and I want her to understand that creative gifts are special. I tried to address her circumstance in 10-year-old terms without talking down to her. Here’s what I said.
“Imagine that you’re a traveler on a long, long journey. One night, just before a storm hits, you arrive at a lonely castle at the top of the hill. Tired, wet, cold, and hungry you make your way to the front door. The castle is empty but there’s a big, raging fire in a fireplace that takes up an entire wall. There’s also a chair. The fire is enough to keep you warm and also to heat a little food. You feel comfortable, warm and safe so you eat and fall asleep. You wake up in the middle of the night to find that another traveler has joined you. This traveler has brought in more wood for the fire and you fall back asleep because it feels so nice. You wake up one more time, just before dawn, and a third traveler is there as well. This ones comes in with a wet coat and thows it on the fire. The fire is out and all of a sudden it’s wet and cold and dark again. Now, if you think about that castle as your life you want to be careful as to who you let inside. And if the fire is your creativity then you only want people around it that will feed and nourish those flames.”
A little simplistic with serious Dr. Phil/Oprah undertones but she and I have always communicated in stories. (Remind me to tell you the one she told me about a peacock). When I heard about her experiences I immediately saw dark and light which were the words she used to describe what happened. Those girls from my old clique always made me feel as if I were inside an underground cave. The friends I made after the split, the ones I wrote about just last week, have always represented lightness and ease. I met them as a freshman in high school and I shared my writing with them from the beginning. They’re still my friends. We went to our reunion together last month and we encourage each other (stoke the flames) every single day.
And where are the other girls? I have no idea. And, that’s what I want her to know. I want her to know that by the time she’s my age those girls will have no significance in her life. And here’s what else I want her to know. I want her to know that if she lets the girls all the way in, to the place inside herself that she should protect the most, she’ll feel their presence for years, and years and years to come. The girls may go away but the damage will linger. So I ask that she indulge her aunt the simplistic story about the travelers and find a really, really good book even if she has to write it herself.
Until next time. . .