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Ruthless People

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 3/6/2002

Whenever some dreamer tries to sell me that theory about how the world would be a much nicer place if women ran it, I laugh. "You've forgotten the seventh grade," I say. Some of the worst people I've ever known were the popular seventh-grade girls of the snobby New Jersey prep school I attended in the mid-1970s. The queen among them was H., who made up ugly nicknames for everyone she didn't like, and who for reasons I still can't fathom decided to put broken glass on the chair of a teacher she hated and had been verbally harassing all year long. Luckily, the poor woman--who must have been about 25, a mere child herself, I now realize--saw the glass before sitting down, but the sheer malevolence communicated by its presence made her burst into tears and run from the room. She quit shortly thereafter.

Dear H. also liked to call our earth-science teacher a faggot to his face--or rather, right in the middle of class, she'd put on her biggest apple-cheeked smile and say, "Mr. P., are you a faggot?" while her cronies N. and D. and F. tittered like sparrows and their counterparts among the mean, popular boys roared in approval. H. was the cruelest and meanest of the bunch, a born ringleader, but she had lots of support from her minions. It was a very small school--probably no more than about 20 kids in the seventh grade--and there were more kids on H.'s side than not.

I was one of the "nots"--not that I was a saint. I had one friend, whom I'll call Rosie, and she and I were on the second-to-the-bottom rung of the school hierarchy. Rosie and I were unpopular (H. called Rosie "Chicken Coop," for her mop of curly, unruly brown hair; if she had a cruel nickname for me, I've managed to repress it), but we weren't quite as pathetic as J. With her heavy, greasy black locks, bad skin, and awkward mannerisms, J. represented the absolute bottom of the social barrel. In our own way, Rosie and I were as mean and dismissive to J. as the popular girls were to us.

Even within the apparent safety of our own little two-person clique, there was a pecking order. Rosie was more insecure and self-involved than I was but, somehow, she had the more forceful personality. I deferred to her, curried favor with her, tried to love her because she was my only anchor in the social tempest that was the seventh grade. "I'm sooooo fat," she would complain, and when I'd point out that she and I were the same height and wore the exact same size pants and both looked just fine in them, she'd roll her eyes. "I have nooooo friends," she once wailed, presumably because having me as her lap dog didn't count.

Toward the end of this preadolescent nightmare, at a special luncheon in front of the whole middle school, the principal awarded me a special plaque for citizenship. It was like having loser tattooed to my forehead. I'd been singled out because I was the only seventh-grade girl who'd chosen to stay outside of the classroom when H. and her gang enacted the glass-on-the-chair plot. I hadn't done anything to stop it, mind you; I had merely bowed out, probably from awkwardness and fear more than any well-developed sense of ethics or "citizenship." Basically, I was given an award for being meek and harmless. Even at age 11, I understood that the school was using me to advance a message of virtue that I didn't actually embody. Rosie, who was always more socially ambitious than I, had probably missed receiving this noncoveted award by just a few feet, by actually passing through the threshold of the classroom to watch the humiliation unfold.

Maybe Rosie was right, after all, when she complained about having no friends. It did no good having me on her side when F., another cruel young beauty in H.'s crowd, learned about Rosie's crush on an out-of-her-league popular boy. F. and her friends told this boy they'd each pay him a dollar if he dared to kiss Chicken Coop. He literally chased Rosie into a corner and, with a dozen girls watching and cheering him on, pinned her down to the ground and forced his tongue in her mouth. I was where I usually was, cringing outside the door, fearing for my friend, doing nothing to harm but nothing to help either. "Citizenship," they called it.

When I started writing this column, my intention was to bring up a fascinating article I read in the Feb. 24 New York Times Sunday Magazine. I guess I've let that larger purpose be eclipsed by these ugly memories of the seventh grade. In any case, "Girls Just Want to Be Mean," by Margaret Talbot, describes the way in which "enlightened" counselors, parents, and administrators are trying to address the problem of cruelty and social manipulation among girls, which is officially called "relational aggression." In their ever-optimistic, micromanagerial, baby-boomerish way, today's interested observers of girlhood are trying to reform the ways of the seventh-grade pecking order. I wish them luck. They need it.

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