Share a story from the fourth grade.
The fourth grade was, for me, H – E – Double Hockey Sticks. It blew up in my face – like a nuclear bomb –and though it was nearly 40 years ago, I still catch myself dealing with the fall-out.
That was the year we moved to a different state – New Jersey to Virginia… after the school year had started.
(A bit of advice: If you can help it? Never move your kids after the school year has started.)
Honestly, though, I could have survived the move… maybe even thrived in spite of it, regardless of the fact that I’d hit a growth spurt and was simply skin stretched over bony knees and elbows; that it would be years (if ever) before I grew into my nose; that I had dirty dishwater-colored hair (it was actually described that way once); that I was, generally, nondescript (where ‘nondescript’ equals ‘incredibly awkward, bordering on homely’). Yes, I might have thrived in spite of all that… had it not been for…
That tiny, waif-like, well-dressed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pixie of a She-Devil.
We’ll call her Karen, OK? (Mostly because that was her name and she doesn’t read my blog.)
Karen introduced herself to me during recess, on my first day at my new school. I was on the playground, hanging upside-down on the monkey bars with the girl the teacher assigned to be my ‘buddy’ (who is, incidentally, still a buddy), when I came nose to shoulders (the monkey bars weren’t very high) with a skinny little girl, 2/3 my size, in a blue plaid skirt. Following her were most of the other girls from my class. Karen stuck out her bony hip, put her hand on it, and said just four words:
“I’ll be your friend.”
I’ll be your friend? What? Of course you’ll be my friend, you odd little creature. Everyone will be my friend. That’s how things work in the fourth grade. Duh!
That’s what I was thinking, anyway.
What I said was, “Oh. OK.” (I was not nearly so articulate then as I am now.)
And with that, Karen and her posse turned and walked away, leaving me hanging. Literally.
Odd as that exchange was, I didn’t give it too much thought. Not at first, anyway. I mean, I didn’t understand why someone had to declare her friendship in such a formal way, certainly, but I chalked it up to being one of the weird things they do in the south, like eating grits, wearing camouflage, and saying y’all.
I was, however, destined to give that exchange a lot of thought over the coming year… the coming years. Truth be told, as the mother of a pre-teen, I still give it some thought. And it still bothers me.
You see, what I didn’t understand then was that when Karen declared her friendship, she was declaring nearly every other girl’s in the class as well. And when she took her friendship away, which she did, often, at whim, usually with no good reason, she took everyone else’s with it, leaving you alone… ostracized… miserable.
This was a new world for me. In my old school, we were all friends. We argued, sure, and there were days when you didn’t talk to your best friend because you were mad at her, but you were always mad for a reason (like, you know, she said she meant to spit on the sidewalk but she spit on your new sneaker instead… stuff like that). In general, I’d always been pretty well-liked. I had friends at my old school – lots of them – and I never much worried about who was mad at whom or if anyone was going to speak to me (or wasn’t). I’d never encountered a girl who decided, simply because she could – simply because it gave her JOY – to choose a victim at random and utter the worst words a fourth grader can hear:
“We’re not your friends anymore.”
“WE’RE not your friends anymore.”
I’d never met anyone with such POWER.
It was terrifying.
And it changed my life. It made me doubt everything I’d always believed about myself – that I was funny and smart and popular; that I was capable of anything important or was good at things that actually mattered to my friends, like jumping rope and making up silly words to songs and doing cartwheels. And worst of all? It made me doubt that I was worthy of friendship.
And crap like that? It stays with you, people. Little shrapnel-like fragments of self-doubt get lodged in your psyche. You can live with it, sure, but sometimes? Even after 40 years? It still hurts a bit.
Now, I should clarify that I wasn’t always her target. Other girls faced her firing squad, too. In fact, someone faced it almost every single day and the very worst part was that we never knew who it was going to be. It was like playing Russian Roulette… you didn’t know if you’d be spared or if you were going to see your feelings and self-esteem and bits of your heart splattered all over the playground. You didn’t know if you were going to be the girl sitting on the low end of the see-saw, with no one on the high end, or if you were going to be one of the girls watching that poor girl, feeling miserable about your part in her misery, but ever so grateful it wasn’t you alone on the see-saw that day.
I’ve often thought about that year and wondered why the rest of us didn’t band together against the pint-sized Mussolini; why we didn’t ostracize her and give her a taste of her own medicine. I’ve often imagined us doing it and, even as an adult (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit), I’ve felt a tiny bit of pleasure at the idea of making her sit alone on the see-saw. But we didn’t do it. We let her have power over us; we let her control our behavior toward one another. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine feeling so helpless – so utterly powerless – in a situation involving nothing but a mean little girl, but, we were little girls, too, and that is exactly how we felt.
I’ve wondered why our teacher didn’t notice the cruelty going on around her or see how in-over-our-heads we were… or if she did see it, why she didn’t even try to intervene. And for as much as I liked that teacher, there’s a part of me that will always despise her for not stepping in when we really needed her.
I’ve wondered what on earth made Karen think she could behave in that way – what made her think it was even a little bit OK; what was happening in her life at home; what examples were being set for her.
That year most certainly figured into how I would raise my own child. I remember telling my daughter, when she was young and developing clear leadership traits, “You need to use your power for good, not evil. People will follow you either because they like you or because they’re afraid of you. And people who follow you because they’re afraid will never be your friends. So be a friend. Be a leader, certainly, but be a friend first.”
I was never in her class again, thankfully, and I changed schools after the 6th grade, so Karen was officially out of my life for good. But her tiny little shadow lives in the back of my head always.
I’ve often wondered if she grew up to have a little girl of her own. And I’ve wondered what lessons she taught her child.
And I've wondered if her tales of the fourth grade sound anything at all like mine.