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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mean Girls: confession of a bully

Little girls and their little games occupy a lot of my time. I watch my daughters interact with each other and hear school yard tales from my 5-year-old. In this, the earliest years of her social education, I can see the lots being drawn and the devious tactics of female aggression starting to take shape.

I am worried about this. My oldest daughter has the type of personality that could be crushed by such childish shenanigans as the withholding of friendship. Fortunately, since the days when I was playing both sides of this game, there has been more examination of the field.

I have been faithfully listening, for the second time, to the CBC radio show IDEAS and its broadcast of the documentary It's a Girls World. It explores the emotional manipulation and malevolence that many girls use to express aggression. While some girls opt for the male-like path of fist and feet, most girls preserve their outer physical decorum while verbally annihilating their targets or just as frequently freezing them out.

These are things I know a lot about. When I was in elementary school I was a tough kid; a bully. The person who was often the target of my wrath was my best friend. I had a little gang and we frequently froze my best friend out. I remember many times leaving her standing alone in the playground while the gang and I took off. And the emotional abuse was only one chapter in my playbook; I also was big on physical displays like a silver backed gorilla I would yell and charge at my best friend hitting her, twisting her arm, hurting her any way that I could.

Only once was I called out on my behavior, which often happened at school during recess and lunch. My best friend finally got up the nerve to tell our third grade teacher that I was hurting her. He called me to his desk and told me to apologize. I told him I wasn't sorry so I wouldn't apologize. His next action may stun you. He sent me to my seat and told my best friend to fight her own battles. That's how I remember it. I may be wrong. I am sure my best friend will tell me if I am wrong in my recounting of history because surprisingly she is still my friend.

A major life-shift turned me from my bullying ways; my parents got divorced, I moved to a new school and was the one in the oft targeted role of 'new kid'. For a few years I behaved and in my new school I picked out the potential bullies easily; as I could recognize myself in them. I stayed out of their social circles and had no problems.

In my third school, the bully problem reared it's ugly head again. I was the new kid again but I found a target and lead the rest of my classmates straight for another girls jugular. The girl, Ellie, had been in the school since primary and she got along well with all the others but then, fatally, her biology kicked in before her parents had sense enough to buy her deodorant. The poor girl smelled. In school yard bullying anything out of the ordinary is an opening and I saw mine. I was the leader again.

A group of my classmates and I cornered her at lunchtime outside the library and called her 'smelly Ellie' until she was crying on the ground with her face to the cold brick wall. When I walked away, with the other kids following, cheering and hooting in victory I turned and saw Ellie and felt a rock where my heart should have been.

In the following weeks I relinquished my role as leader and did not take part in the 'smelly Ellie' taunts that my classmates threw around the playground. I don't know what happened to Ellie in the end; I moved.

In my teens I thought I had left that mean girl far behind in both time and space. I was living in Edmonton, attending a school of the performing arts and had a group of friends who didn't appear to have a malicious bone in their over conditioned ballet bodies. In our second year of High School a new student arrived at school and joined the ballet.

Her name was Maria, she was a Phillipena. She had beautiful long black hair, almond shaped eyes and razor sharp cheek bones. I offered to share my locker with her so she could be in the ballet crowd instead of lost over in the Vietnamese or Skater sections of the school. At first everything went great. We went for coffee, rode the bus together, and hung out at lunch. Then she met my friend Kevin.

Kevin had been out of school since the end of Grade 10. None of us knew where he was or why he had gone. We had been chummy at school but none of us knew him well enough to have his phone number. Several months into Grade 11, not long after Maria arrived, Kevin returned to school and explained that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been in the Psych ward at the hospital across the street from our school for most of the past 6 months.

Maria was immediately drawn to him. At first she asked to hang out with Kevin and I when we went for coffee and then she started to ask me questions about who he was seeing, who he was interested in. I told her that I didn't think that Kevin should be dating anyone, that the turbulence of the dating scene would be too much for him right now. I thought she was a little out there herself for even thinking of dating someone recently released from the Psych ward. I thought my comments would disuade her from any action in that area.

Several weeks later I found out from Kevin that he was dating Maria. I was extremely upset and completely furious with Maria. I kicked her out of my locker and immediately turned all the other bunheads (the common nickname for ballerinas) against her. I explained to them how hurtful this could be to Kevin and how her dating him would likely end him back up in the Psych ward. I won them over easily and they shunned her. She was frozen out during school and after school at ballet. Her social life, aside from whatever relationship she had with Kevin, was over. In less than a month she transferred schools and we never talked about her again.

After she left I recognized the monster which I thought I had tamed. It had been roaming the halls at my high school and had claimed another victim. I was ashamed but I could not talk about it with my friends. I was like the devil; I had led them into temptation and they surely would not like to admit the evilness of their actions. All I could do was censure myself and be more vigilant in guarding my darker side.

One day in my final year of high school I got on a city bus headed to the mall and there at the back sat Maria. I had not seen her since she left my school-about a year had past. I walked to the back of the bus and sat in the seat in front of her. She didn't speak to me but a faint smile played across her lips similar to the ones chimpanzees are known display as an expression of fear.

I turned to face her and ...I apologized. Soon we were both crying and holding each other. We rode the bus to the mall and back round again while I made amends and she graciously forgave me. I don't know why she did it, forgave me that is, just like I don't know why I treated her so badly. But I did know I was wrong. I did make amends. I was fortunate to have the chance. I have not lost control of my mean girl since then but I know she lurks somewhere within.

It is this knowledge that makes me worry about my own girls. How will they deal with people like me? Will they even tell me if they are being threatened in this way? Many girls don't. In the documentary It's a Girls World, there are several bullying stories that end in death. How can we protect against it? Most likely the best defense is an offense; learn about, talk about it, and practice plays before game day.

Girls social aggression is a type of game- most girls know the unwritten rules and play by them. The attack and counterattack seem to be written into the female DNA. I am hopeful there is something else written there too.

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