She showed up to my wedding in a floral mini dress and black platform heels. The outfit may have been appropriate in Los Angeles, where she lived, if she was at a nighttime soiree that ended at 2 a.m. with a limo ride down the strip.
But we were on the opposite coast, on a small island in Georgia, sipping mimosas after a 10 a.m. ceremony. And she was staring at me with one eyebrow raised.
My husband and I smiled for a photo with his uncle, who I'd just met for the first time. Then, prompted by her tugging at my white lace dress, I turned and smiled at my best friend from middle school, Mary-Kate Olsen-turned-Malibu Barbie.
"Sorry," I said, waving her over. "Let's take that picture."
She placed a manicured hand over her cleavage. "Oh," she groaned dramatically. "Is that OK with the bride, now?"
The photographer snapped a photo, and to this day, I still feel the humiliation laced into my fake smile. All these years, my parents had been right. She was a bully.
When it comes to kids and schools, everyone seems to be jumping on the bully bandwagon. In my former life as a teacher, I spent countless hours with my colleagues learning how to spot and confront the problem in our classrooms. We trained students to intervene whenever possible, and parents became increasingly wary that their child might be the next victim of cyber-bullying or the plain old-fashioned kind. (You know, the kind where the kids call you "rat's nest" all year because you styled your hair with a crimper once.)
Don't get me wrong. We can all stand to do a better job of protecting our children from unwanted harassment or unnecessary isolation. And if violence in schools is any sign of our success at bullying prevention, well, we're not doing so great.
But as I thought back on my own childhood, I realized that I'd never hated this girl. I didn't want anyone to intervene on my behalf. I wanted to be her best friend.
Back then, she was the youngest girl in the fifth grade, with shoulder-length blonde hair and big hazel eyes. The summer we met, we figured out how to climb onto the black tar roof of my garage, where we sunbathed, slurped freeze pops and listened to 'N Sync. But the next summer, she screamed at me when I decided I didn't want to watch American Psycho with a group of high school boys. She was moody, sure, but I never thought she was a bully.
My parents never stopped me from seeing her, though they pointed out her narcissism and cultish following. When they caught me illegally driving a car before my 15th birthday — with her in the passenger seat — they had an ingenious punishment. I wasn't grounded; I just had to tell my friends' parents about our crimes.
Of course, the punishment worked. Within hours, I was branded the tattle. The narc. And you better believe the rest of our friends knew it and acted accordingly. When they all stopped calling, I drifted to other friends, which was exactly what my parents had wanted. I found myself hanging out with girls who didn't worry so much about wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, and guys who avoided nudie-slasher movies and opted instead for miniature golf.
Looking back, I now realize that at that moment, I could have been free. I could have lived my life in peace, bully-free. But somewhere along the way, my friend had convinced me that her bad behavior was justified. That the times she yelled and called me names and belittled and excluded me were proper punishment for a goody-two-shoes tattletale. So inevitably, I apologized. And we became friends again, much to my parents' chagrin.
But this is the problem with girl-on-girl bullying. Most likely, the girl doing the bullying and the girl being bullied are somehow, in the midst of it, also trying to be friends. It's messy. It's complicated. And it's not something that can be solved with a few hours of professional development or a quick viewing of the 2004 classic Mean Girls. Real-life mean girls are much harder to spot. Especially when they're sitting next to you at lunch.
She squeezed me tightly after the wedding photographer captured the photo. "I can't believe you're married," she said happily, as if her rude comment had never happened.
"It's true," I replied, still stunned. Then I grabbed the photographer by the hand and bee-lined to my parents, who were standing in the courtyard, surrounded by hydrangeas and the soft sounds of a guitarist picking six strings. I had to tattle one last time.
"Take a picture of this," I said to the photographer. I turned back to my parents.
"Mom, Dad," I said. "You were right."
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