Mean Girls: Bullying Then and Now

Ann Lambert is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA

Bullies.  They come in pairs, sometimes in groups.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  They come armed with words as their weapons and with a whole lot of (perceived) confidence.  But most of all… they come in middle school.  When I applied to be a Teaching Fellow, I wrote in my application essay that I was motivated to work with middle school students because I wanted to prevent them from having the same experience I did when I was their age.  I felt that if I could relate to at least one girl who gets picked on and make her understand that everything is going to be OK… that middle school sucks and life gets better… it would be worth it.

But my optimistic vision of how I would single handedly change the social scene, build students’ self esteem, and teach girls, specifically, to build each other up rather than tear one another down was quickly demolished.  I would not get retribution for the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days of middle school I suffered through a decade before.  Instead, I would be rudely awakened to the reality that nothing has changed.  I am just as powerless before bullies now as I was then.  And the cyclical nature of relational aggression in females is one that cannot be halted by one well-meaning teacher.

2000-2002: Middle School Student

Having just moved to sunny California, I entered the seventh grade with a predetermined brand: the new girl.  And I didn’t stand a chance.  I was immediately swept up by the “popular” girls who took me for a test drive, figuratively speaking.  After they decided I wasn’t cool enough, I was condemned to a life of mediocrity among the ranks of the commoners.  I was pointed at.  Laughed at.  Called names.  Judged for the company I kept.  On one occasion, I even spent a middle school dance peeling gum out of my closest friend’s hair—strategically placed there by one of the aforementioned popular girls.  What I experienced in middle school was “Mean Girls”-esque…the stuff of movies.  But it gave me thick skin and the desire to be the support that I never had for middle schoolers ten years later…

2010-2012: Middle School Teacher

  •  “You look like an animal”
  • “…all fat with that nappy hair”
  • “Is she a girl?  Walkin’ round in those cargo shorts lookin’ like a boy.  Nobody can tell what he/she is…”
  • “She must come straight from Chinatown with that face all smashed in and her eyes barely open”
  • On a field trip to the zoo, two girls exclaim to a classmate as we pass by the gorilla cages:  “Hey Kayla, welcome home!  Go join your kind—ugly AND hairy!”
  • As we walk pass a mother and her crying baby in a stroller, the same two girls snicker: “Kayla, hide your face you’re scaring the baby!”

…And these are the tamer “blog-appropriate” things I hear on a daily basis.  There are a slew of other four letter words, inappropriate adjectives, and grotesque insults I hear that I will leave up to your imagination.  In response, I have had interventions and conversations with the repeat offenders who seem genuinely sorry, only to hear them saying or doing the same thing the next day.   And I have had heart to hearts with sobbing students on the receiving end of the bullying, only to see them become the bullies to other more vulnerable students.   As I ride the bus home most nights, I can’t help but feel angry and defeated because it seems that in the face of bullying, my best just isn’t enough.

In recent weeks especially, it has been painful yet important for me recognize and come to terms with the fact that I am not changing lives, writing history, or altering deeply rooted social norms in the two years I have dedicated to Citizen Schools.  I may help raise a math grade or twelve (fingers crossed when the report cards come in!).  I may make a student smile by remembering their birthday, baking them cookies, and giving them a hand-made card.  I may even play a small part in introducing a child to their dream-college (BC!) or career that they choose to pursue down the line.  But no matter how much I might like to, I am not able stomp out bullying from the middle school scene one mean girl at a time.

So… what can I do?

  • Address what I see and hear in the halls and in the classroom.
  • Be a consistent and supportive presence in my students’ lives—both the bullies and the bullied.
  • Hope that those who are bullied always remember how it feels to be on the receiving end of aggressive behavior so that they are moved to defend and make a positive impact on the lives of others.
  • And pray that the bullies learn to think about how their words and actions could impact another life, before what is intended to be a little joke has someone writing about her scars 10 years later.

Have you ever felt powerless to change something you felt strongly about?  What did you do?