Best Friends and Mean Girls

That's Lee on the left and me on the right in about 7th grade at school on a rare out-of-uniform day. (Photo credit: Lee)

Mean girls. They’re everywhere. All the time. Even today. But they were especially present in my life during middle school at the Julius T. Wright School for Girls. Yes, I went to an all-girls school.

I joined a class of 40 young ladies in the 6th grade. We all looked alike in our maroon and gray plaid kilts and white blouses with Peter Pan collars, but we couldn’t have been more different. I couldn’t have been more different. And they knew it. Probably 30 of them had been together since 4K. As you can imagine, it was difficult — impossible, actually — to break into that tight-knit group, but I had a little friend group of other new girls and a few who’d been there but for whatever reason had been separated from the herd and left to falter. My best friend was another new girl named Lee.

The last time I saw Lee was when she came over to Montevallo from Tuscaloosa toward the end of our freshman year of college. We spent about an hour catching up, and then she was off on her way home to Mobile. With the advent of Facebook, we found each other again a number of years ago and had done a little catching up. She’s in Detroit, and I am in Birmingham so we haven’t actually gotten to visit in real life. Just a comment or two here. A “like” there. Some short messages. But as the Fates would have it, about two weeks ago we were both going to be in Chicago at the same time.

We met in Hyde Park for breakfast. We hugged, and then we hugged some more. She’s the same sweet girl I met in 1980 — quick to laugh, soft spoken, dancing eyes, easy to talk to. She’s the same sweet girl who’s friendship I clung to (and she to mine) as we both tried to navigate middle school waters teaming with bloodthirsty she-sharks born into some sort of perceived societal entitlement that floated around them like so much chum stirring them into a writhing frenzy of classism and vitriol. These were our classmates. And these “Wright young ladies,” the crème de la crème of polite Mobile society, future Mardi Gras queens, the progeny of old money were, quite simply, savages.

Missy was small for her age and allergic to everything, it seemed, but meanness. Casey’s face was twisted and ugly as she spat names at us. Sarah Ellen’s nose was so far up in the air, if it had rained, she would have drowned. Ruth, Phaedra, Michelle. The list goes on and on spanning several grades and several years. Sometimes I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but these girls — their names and their smirking vicious faces are branded into my psyche.

One particular instance stands out. Lee and I decided during recess that we’d play like we were blind, each one taking a turn to guide the other around the playground by hand. Maybe we’d just read about Helen Keller or something. Who knows? In any event, it was just a silly schoolyard game, and we were having fun stumbling around, pretending. We were having fun until Missy saw us. I remember her laughing and pointing. Her face contorted in a satanic smirk.

“Look at the lesbians! They’re lesbians! Y’all, look at the lesbians!”

Now I didn’t even know what a lesbian was at the time, but by the way Missy spat the word at us, I knew it had to be something bad, really really bad. I went home that night and begged my parents to not make me go back to that place. Begged them to send me to public school. But I couldn’t tell them why I was so upset. I couldn’t say that bad word — lesbian. Finally, I whispered in Mama’s ear what Missy had said.

They were properly shocked, but back then, parents didn’t interfere in things like schoolgirl spats. They told me that mean girls were just jealous and to turn the other cheek and two wrongs don’t make a right and all that good parent stuff. And the next day I was right back in the maroon and gray plaid trenches of The Julius T. Wright School for Girls, a little bit tougher, a little colder, and still not knowing what a lesbian was.

Things rocked on in varying degrees of misery for three years. There were some good times, to be sure — sleepovers, cotillion dances with the boys from University Military School (UMS), birthday parties. But for the most part, every day it was kill or be killed.

Lee and I both left that school in 1983 — more than a little scathed. She went back into public school, and I transferred to St. Paul’s where even the meanest mean girl in my class looked like a pathetic and rank amateur by comparison. St. Paul’s was bigger and more diverse. I had more friends. Things couldn’t help but be better, and they were. Sure there was teasing. And I was never part of the “in crowd.” But after JTW, I was a lot more tenacious and cared a whole lot less about what people thought of me, which is a pretty good recipe for being moderately happy. Especially during a confusing time like high school.

Although Lee and I had been as close as sisters for three years, we didn’t manage to stay in touch very well once we went to separate schools, although we both still held a special place for the other. But here we were, eating breakfast together 35 years later. We spent a little while catching up. We both have a second husband and one son, we’ve worked in various jobs, we talked about our parents and siblings. Then what did the conversation turn to?

The mean girls.

We derived a certain amount of pleasure recounting some of their misspent lives. And if you’d walked a mile in our school-sanctioned saddle oxfords, you would too. Who wouldn’t? We decided that karma really is a bitch and that meanness will eat you up from the inside out and turn you into a shriveled husk of a human being. Meanness ages you. It takes a lot of work and effort to be actively despicable. It’s taxing to think up new names to call out, to scrutinize someone to find the tiniest flaw you can latch onto like a snarling chihuahua on an old tube sock, to analyze a psyche to find the weakest point so that you can plan your attack and make the kill swift and deadly. It’s just plain tiresome to be mean.

We talked about how glad we were to have been friends and how we’ll always have our bond, which was only strengthened in the face of adversity. We talked about how funny it was that we were still affected by the words and actions of those girls all these years later. But after a little while we got past all that — past the words that just had to be said, the names that just had to be spoken, the recounting of the slights and the fights that had been waiting to be told. And we started talking about the future — our plans to visit each other soon, how we wouldn’t let 30 more years pass before we got together again, how old friends are the best friends.

A couple of hours later, we again hugged each other tight. Lee’s son took our picture, and then she headed back to Detroit and I went back to my hotel. Seeing her brought back memories that I’d cached away in that place where you keep all the things that you don’t really want to think about but somehow can’t get rid of. Like that pile of mending you never get around to — the clothes are slightly damaged, but they’re too good to throw away even though you can’t bring yourself to put forth the effort to fix them.

That’s why for the last couple of weeks, mean girls have been on my mind.

And just the other day, a classmate of mine from St. Paul’s reached out through Facebook to ask me a question. It wasn’t quite a favor, but close, which I found intriguing since (a) we weren’t friends in high school, (b) we weren’t friends when we went to the same college, and (c) we’ve had little or no contact in the last 30 years since graduation. It was basically out of curiosity that I replied at all. We messaged back and forth, I answered her question, we caught up a little, and then out of the blue she said, “If I was ever aloof with you at St. Paul’s or Montevallo, I sincerely apologize.” She attributed her behavior to not knowing where she belonged, uncertainty, and immaturity.

Now she wasn’t a mean girl. She wasn’t an anything girl. We had zero relationship one way or the other. She hung around the fringes of the popular group, and I stayed in my lane. I always figured she would have been more friendly to me if she hadn’t thought it would harm her status in her group. Turns out, I was right. She apologized. Said she was ashamed.

Just between you and me, I don’t really think she has anything to be sorry for. She was never actively hateful, she was just what she said — aloof. She was just trying to make her way like I was trying to make mine. Aloof is just disinterested. Aloof doesn’t leave bruises. Aloof doesn’t leave scars.

But it did make me feel a little bit better to know at least one person out there in the world was sorry for how they treated someone in school. I wonder if the Missys of the world are sorry. Do they even remember doing the things that I can’t forget? The little things that shape who I am even to this day? Or do the Missys still tease, and taunt, and bully their way through PTO, through traffic, through their jobs, through their lives?

I guess I’ll never know. Maybe while they seemed to belong, to be so entrenched, they were terrified of losing their tenuous foothold in their friend group. Maybe they, like my high school classmate, were afraid if they didn’t lead the charge or at least go along, the others would turn on them as they had seen them turn on so many others. Maybe it was just immaturity, and they’ve outgrown their wicked ways to become veritable paragons of virtue.

But somehow I doubt it. I bet you don’t have to scratch their polished surfaces very hard to find some good old, maroon and grey plaid meanness not too far underneath their skin. Like they say, beauty is skin deep, but ugly…well, ugly is to the bone.