Middle School Madness
These are shots from the fall of 2004, when Jessie was in 8th and Grady in 3rd grade. I had to go back and do the actual math, counting up the years and the grades, as I don’t ever quite remember them in the same way that the photos document.
Grady as a 3rd grader in my mind seemed older, bigger than this. Not as goofy. Weighed down a bit by multiplication tables and cursive writing. Much more interested in being co-captain of the football team, video-gaming and lacrosse. That was an easy year. Grady was in a classroom with two male teachers (when does THAT ever happen in an elementary school?) and there was lots of allowances and room to wiggle. Grady’s organizational and time management skills took a nosedive that year without a female teacher to micro-manage the process, but his self-confidence soared. A fair trade.
Jessie, oh Jessie. Mom, oh mom. Jessie was starting her 8th grade year. She was rocking it academically as usual, but my oh my…the social scene. Can someone please tell me why girls are so mean? Why girls are still so mean?
I remember my junior high years, 7th -9th grades. There was a group of girls that I “belonged” to and we were a mess. We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but as junior high played out, it became apparent to all. We were the “cool” girls—we smoked cigarettes and pot, “made out” heavily and frequently, and had sleepovers most weekends with dubious adult supervision where we oftentimes snuck out to run around on the golf courses with the cool guys. I participated in it all while maintaining my second life as a straight-A student and a good girl.
What precipitated it all was the new girl that came to town, “Lisa”. Lisa had very, very long straight blond hair, reaching down past her waist. She had two older sisters and a younger brother, and parents who, while married, were oftentimes at odds and unavailable. They had lots of money and were busy building a big house on a huge property. She had HORSES, a magnet for teen girls. Her dad was often out of town and we would spend the night at her house, drinking beer, smoking, and making out with boyfriends.
Our group of girls wasn’t really mean to other girls. Well, not that I remember, although I am sure that other girls saw us as wrapped up in ourselves and our own little universe (which we were). Our meanness was directed at members of our own group and the hangers-on. Each week or two, a girl would be the new target of gossip, exclusion, disdain. There would be written notes, whispered stories in the halls at school and nightly recaps over the home phone at night. The girl would scramble madly to get back in everyone’s, especially Lisa’s, good graces, someone would make an allowance that she “wasn’t so bad” and the girl would be permitted back “in”. A week or two later, the process would begin again. I did anything and everything to avoid being the target, walking around with a ball of anxiety in my heart and gut. No wonder I didn’t ever really “get” 8th grade math.
Fast forward to Jessie’s 7th and 8th grade years. The mean girl this time is Jessie’s best friend who has turned on Jessie, rejecting her, talking about her, taking a few friends with her in the defection. And Jessie is devastated. At Jessie’s elementary school, the rule was “Everyone Can Play” and Jessie still, in her core, believed it. Of course, there were the usual friendship ups and downs, alliances and betrayals, but all in all, the elementary school was just too small for kids to be mean for long. So this middle school meanness struck hard and deep, rocking Jess’s sense of herself and safety in the interpersonal world.
The social drama overtook day-to-day life and became the pivotal barometer of well being for Jessie and for me. I would question Jessie each day about any new developments, her take on the situation, what was working and what wasn’t. We read books on relational aggression together, developing strategies for her to cope, helping Jessie understand it wasn’t HER FAULT, that these things were natural, to be expected and could be handled. Inside, I seethed, imagining all kinds of horrible social downfalls that should befall Jessie’s nemesis. I talked with my mom friends, who asked about progress daily. We all commiserated.
Of course, Jessie recovered. So did I. I went on to work at an all-girls school as a psychologist, where MOST OF MY DAY, EVERYDAY, was spent helping girls and their moms work through these very same issues. I designed and conducted workshops and groups for girls and parents on “Why Can’t They All Get Along?: Helping Your Tween Navigate Her Social Life” and “Best Friends Forever: Strategies for Making and Keeping Healthy Friendships”. And girls and their moms lapped it up. Attendance was higher at these workshops than for my other workshops that dealt with sex or drugs and alcohol. Apparently, parents perceive mean girls as a much bigger threat. Or maybe just a more universal one–although I consider that a short-sighted view as even “good girls” will eventually enjoy sex, drink a beer, or smoke a joint. Thank heavens.
So, when does it all end? When will women just learn to be kind to each other? Whether you’re a stay at home mom, a single parent mom, a two-mom household, a “breast feeds in public” or a “bottle-feeding” mom–who really cares? Whether you’re the room parent mom coordinating all the field trips or the mom who sends the nanny to the annual school orientation meeting because she’s traveling on corporate business, why do we measure and label each woman’s commitment to parenting? Sure, we’ve outgrown hair length and bra size as a means of measuring and judging other women. Yet, have we really relaxed? Aren’t many of us still so insecure about who we are as a person of substance in this world, that we must compare, complain and criticize, reassuring ourselves of our own worth? Isn’t this all just another vestige of middle school drama?
I’m done. I’m done with the comparing and criticizing. Jessie is 23 now, married, and teaching 7th grade girls these same lessons. I want her to know that I’ve dropped my armor, that she can too, and that she can teach middle school girls that, without the armor, we are all more free, walking without that ball of anxiety, trusting and liking ourselves, being with others in more compassion and peace.
From Elizabeth: One of my projects starting at the beginning of 2014 has been working with long-time clients, going through their files of photographs from two decades now, and collaborating on ways to use the images with their voice in words capturing intimate moments and life lessons along the way. My first client, Tammy Finch, is one who has without fail, had her children and sometimes her and her hubby alongside, photographed every single year for the last 19 years. Her oldest daughter, who was 4 when I first photographed her, was married last year:)This project is just unfolding and has so much potential. For now, it will be an ongoing blog series accompanied by the photos that inspired her from that year in their life. But who knows what the creative process will bring, I am looking forward to help facilitate the project and give you a glimpse at a way to use photography and writing to document your life and pass down a lifetime of growth and intimate personal experiences to your families.