The day before the final day of 7th grade my daughter hops in the car with two of the three girls I regularly take home.
“Where’s (Insert Girl’s Name Here)?” I say. It doesn’t matter who it was, because what happened next is really all too familiar in middle school. It happened to me, it happened to students every year I taught middle school, and it will continue to happen.
“I’m not riding with (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter says sharply. Notice the lack of information I have at this point. I can see the girl running toward the truck.
“That’s not nice,” I say, “I’m not going to just leave her.” This friendship has been dissolving all year but the carpool situation was established, and I only have one more day to get through.
“Well, we aren’t taking her tomorrow!”
“There's only one more day, c’mon. We are taking her to school tomorrow.” I still have no information at this point but I’m trying to de-escalate whatever has happened using my calm voice because there are two other girls in the truck.
“(Girl’s Name) said I was ugly!” and now the other girls in the truck are into the conversation, “How did you hear that?” “OMG I can’t believe she said that!” etc.
“Okay,” now I have something to work with, “did you tell her that was hurtful, or ask her why she would say something hurtful like that?”
“No! Someone else told me she said it!”
“Well I think you should address it with her but not now in the truck in front of everyone.” I say. (Girl’s Name) is now standing outside the truck door while friends in the back seat keep the door closed in solidarity. I have to say “let her in.” (Girl’s Name) gets in.
“I don’t appreciate you telling people you think I’m ugly, (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter blurts.
“I never said that! Who told you that?!” she says.
I look at my daughter and say, “We’re not doing this now in front of everyone.”
I drop everyone off in a mixture of awkward silence and the other girls conversing about random things that essentially exclude (Girl’s Name). After (Girl’s Name) leaves the truck, my daughter’s best friend is able to guess exactly who the boy was that told her what had been said. Then more silence. After the last girl leaves the truck my daughter bursts into sobs. As I reach home and shut off the truck, I sit with my daughter quietly while she cries.
Before I get much deeper into this story I need to explain that yes, Mother Bear does kick in wanting to save my child from all the hurt and evil in the world, but trained professional middle school teacher also kicks in wanting my daughter to learn how to handle these situations on her own. The mother/teacher in me wants her to understand that it isn’t about who said what to whom, it’s about whether or not my daughter is going to believe every bullshit comment someone else says about her and then absorb it as her “truth.”
We cannot control what others say or think about us; we can only control how we choose to react to it, and we control whether or not we are going to add it to the baggage we carry for far too long. I made the mistake of adding every “you’re ugly, you’re too quiet, you’re a crybaby, you’re too tall, you’re stupid” to my own baggage beginning in 6th grade, and I have had trouble putting it down for years. I don’t want this for my child.
When the crying slows I observe, “Wow, you’ve been holding that in well.”
“Since 5th period!” she sobs. Three hours.
“What happened? How did you hear this?”
The story is a familiar one unfortunately. I think an identical scenario happened to me at her age. In between classes while my daughter was at her locker, a boy walks by (typically this is the cute boy or the popular boy) and says “Guess what? So-and-so told me she thinks you’re ugly,” and then he keeps on walking. Now anyone standing around has also heard this, and since he has kept on walking my daughter is left standing there feeling the heat of the imaginary spotlight with no recourse.
“Wow, that’s hurtful. How did you handle that?” I asked.
“I just said ‘OK’ and acted like I didn’t care.” The tears are still dropping off her cheeks into her lap because her head is hanging so low.
“That’s the worst. I’m angry he felt the need to share that with you. What do you think he had to gain by saying that sort of thing to you?” At this point I’m hoping that I can help her to realize that people do and say mean things because of stuff that is going on with them, not her.
“I don’t know," pause, "(Girl’s Name) has been mean to him all year long. He knows that she rides home with me, so maybe he was trying to make me mad at her to stop giving her rides.” She finally lifts her head to look at me.
“Well, if you decide to talk to her about it, these things almost always go just like they did when she got in the car: ‘No I didn’t’ and ‘Who told you?’ So be prepared for the denial. You can think about just letting her know you don’t care if she said it or not, but that it was hurtful, and when she asks again for who told you I would just say ‘the person you said it to. It doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just mean.’ And then walk away. You don’t need to argue about it because now she knows you know. Even if you don’t talk to her about it, you've learned something about both her and the boy who felt the need to share it with you.”
My daughter nods.
“I’m so sorry you held that in all day and that you were hurt like that. It’s not fun at all, but it sounds like you handled it really well.” We leave the truck.
A quality my daughter has that I admire (except when it's directed at me because it's typically accurate) is her fearless approach to calling others out on their bullshit. If you upset her she will tell you; if you do something she doesn’t like she will tell you; if you hurt her she will tell you. She uses this to protect both herself and others. If she sees someone else being picked on or treated unfairly she will speak up for them; she can be direct and sometimes her tone brutal. What she hides a little too well is that she is also easily wounded. The last thing I want is for what happened in the hallway to stick with my daughter for years to come like it stuck to me. Her ability it speak up for herself is really part of what I was missing at her age, so I don’t think it will stick with her, but I can’t really be sure.
We each have choices about how we will react to things. I could have gone all 51 year-old-psycho yelling at 13 year-old-meanie who talked behind my daughter’s back, OR I could choose to help my daughter process the experience of finding out that yes, people talk about us behind our backs.
My daughter was hurt, publicly humiliated, and felt betrayed by someone she saw nearly every day of 7th grade. No amount of me telling her that she isn’t ugly was going to help her navigate what happened to her. It also doesn't really matter whether or not the other girl actually said this or not; my daughter believes that she has. What might have helped was having her think about what motivated someone else’s behavior, having her take time to think about how she might want to address it, and my silence while she cried.
She has heard me say it often: wounded people are sometimes better equipped to inflict more pain on others. I want to help her navigate being hurt by others in a way that sets her free from the pain instead of trapping her into believing that the pain is somehow deserved or part of who she needs to be.
I can’t say with confidence that the pain hasn’t stuck with her. I also can’t say I handled it the best possible way. A month later I can see that the remnants of the sting of the comment have shaken her confidence, and I know that the close of 7th grade has wounded my child. My heart is broken. What I do at this point is the only thing I can do—I simply need to stay available and listen more than I talk.