I’m really sorry to the girl across the street.
Agnes was a nerdy loner, and her name was not Agnes, but it was like Agnes, a quaint name for a quiet girl who wore unfashionable clothes. Is it possible that was the entire basis of our campaign against her? There were five of us, a middle-school mean-girl gang, and we bullied and teased her with glee. We sent pizzas to her house, we made phony phone calls to her, we ignored her, we laughed behind her back.
Was I that cruel? It’s haunted me since. I sent a card to her a few years back, care of her elderly mother (whom, I discovered to my further mortification, was named Agnes), still in the old town at the old address. I apologized unreservedly and — good for Agnes — never heard back. I wanted absolution I didn’t deserve, and I didn’t get it.
The bitter realization of my own cruelty so stayed with me that when my daughters reached the age of aggressive alliances and intimidating dynamics otherwise known as middle school, I was on high alert for the signs. I caught it on a couple of occasions and called them out, fast. I myself had been an early adopter of these behaviors, easily influenced and enthusiastically collaborative on project managing the next Agnes offensive.
With my girls, I watched for the usual practices: whispering in a group, leaving someone off a party guest list, the backseat-of-the-car chorus about clothing or looks — and was set off. I’d march the daughter-aggressor to the home, stand back on the sidewalk while she knocked. In the few instances (my girls learned fast), it was the mom who answered the door, so the hard lessons of accountability and humility were doubled.
There is no defense for my participation in the bullying of Agnes, but there are certainly prevailing forces that gather like fog around the memories. First of all, my mother had three sisters, and the vicious bickering, break-ups, and reconciliations were epic but normal! The smack-talk between them was the soundtrack to my childhood. The sisters argued and shunned, cried and accused, threw each other under the bus, round-robin. A month later they gathered at holiday tables, all sentimental smiles and raucous laughter.
Next, the attraction to a band of sisters like my mother’s, dysfunctional but always reliable, the embodiment of complicated, enduring love was irresistible to me, an only child. I wanted badly to belong to the girl gang, to have my own sisters, and I was ready to betray my better nature for it. This is still somewhat true in my friendships with women. I’m always looking for a sister.
Third, I was a girl. Back in the olden days “bullying” was something bad boys did to physically intimidate weaker boys. It was the stuff of cartoons and comic books. Girls were sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice, and the spice was played down, and the everything-nice was the nonsense propaganda of the greeting card people or something. As if the far-more sophisticated and subtle psychological warfare girls waged against other girls was not as frightening and traumatic as any big boy kicking sand in a smaller boy’s face.
The fact is, girls use “relational aggression tactics” — silent treatment, ostracizing, gossip — as early as preschool, according to an ancient-and-probably-worse-now 2009 State University of New York at Buffalo study (updated in 2015). Nowadays, the pressure of social media, psy-ops marketing messages, and impossible expectations continue to push girls to form alliances — cliques — to navigate all of it with the support of the like-minded gang. Standards and norms are established by the group and enforced by the group. If you deviate, forget it, you’re the weak link. You are banished.
I guess it’s good to know there’s some behavioral science behind our middle-school mob mentality. Phantom pizza orders and heavy breathing into the phone seem pretty tame today but no less hurtful. The gang had decided that Agnes didn’t fit, and we ostracized her and bullied her because…well, why exactly? To feel powerful? To prove we were superior to Agnes who posed no threat, had no agenda? To jeer at a girl who presented herself modestly, while we sat in bathtubs to shrink our jeans to figure-hugging perfection?
The irony is, I myself had been on the receiving end of this treatment, including physical threats on the bus to elementary school. The memory is so vivid I still have dreams that someone in the bus seat behind me is wrapping gum around my ponytail, a thing that actually happened. The memory is so vivid that when my oldest daughter, so sweet, so vulnerable, was first riding the school bus and she came home and burst into tears because of “a big boy,” I boarded that damned bus the next morning, found the kid and introduced myself. He looked completely shocked when I dead-eyed him and said, “I just wanted to meet you.”
I do work to let my better nature prevail, and I’ve done okay, but I’ve also failed. Foggy forces still prevail. Recently, I was at a girls’ weekend, and after adult beverages and edibles, we played a provocative game with a tagline – Are You Prepared to Learn What Your Friends Really Think of You?
Cards ask who in the room is the most, the least, the worst, the best, etc. We each read a card and then everybody pointed at their choice. Their target. I pointed and got pointed at. I was sitting next to a friend and noticed she did the kind thing: she pointed up each time, at no one, and then I did that too, but too late. I wish I’d banished myself…from the game.
A small saving grace for me now is every time I see a school bus I say I’m sorry, Agnes out loud. Maybe my apology will somehow boost some kindness and affirmation into her day, what she didn’t get from me long ago. It’s September. The yellow bus fleets are out.
Do you have similar experiences with bullying? Share with us in the comments below.
About Stephanie Gangi
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Carry the Dog is her second novel. Her acclaimed debut, The Next, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gangi’s shorter work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Catapult, Dame, LitHub, Hippocrates Poetry Anthology, McSweeney’s, New Ohio Review, Next Tribe, The Woolfer. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on The Good Provider, her third novel.
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