One of my earliest memories is the face of my mother, looking lovingly but sternly into my eyes as she lightly rested her hands on my tiny shoulders. "Be nice, Erin," she said. "BE NICE." She's told me this hundreds of times during my life — and as I've gotten older it's become easier for me to resist the urge to say aloud the put downs my brain concocts on its own during wounded or idle moments. But it's not so easy to resist indulging my mean streak when every single day, Facebook tempts me with the opportunity to lash out at the girl who made my life hell in eighth grade.
We're fine now, this woman (who I'll call Stacey*) and I — at least in person. She's married and has a kid and she lives in a small airportless city not far from where we grew up in what appears to be a perfectly fine single level house with a carpeted living room. She has some kind of Skylar White-esque No Degree Required job and her husband has a different kind of customer service No Degree Required job and if I were to run into her on one of the rare occasions I'm home, I'd stop and gab with her. She drives an American car with plastic bumpers and buys her clothes at a mall. She enjoys various popular but bland pop culture offerings. The junior high terror has become terribly normal and regular.
But even though I'd be able to smile and gladhand and say "IT'S GREAT TO SEE YOU!" at the end of an in-person interaction with a person who seems like a perfectly non-terrible adult, something about seeing Stacey's posts on social media makes me want to seize the opportunity to make her feel as shitty now as she made me feel then. Does she know that her life is fucking depressing as hell? Her little ranch house life and her vacations to fucking St. Cloud? Should I tell her? Being a jerk on the internet is what I do for a living. It would be fun. It would be easy. It would be over in a few keystrokes. Would I feel better if I just stopped being nice?
A sharp tongue was the only weapon I had when I was a kid. I was young for my class, small for my age. I wasn't allowed to watch network TV without parental supervision, couldn't listen to pop radio or watch PG-rated movies, and my mother's idea of a great magazine subscription for kids was Cricket, which was basically a dour word-dense reader for stern, serious children who never besmirched their pants crease and would one day grow up to enter the New Yorker caption contest every week. I was expected to get good grades and finish the food my mom cooked and help my dad mow the lawn or chop wood and collect eggs from the chickens even though some of the crabby old hens would peck my hand.
My parents wanted me to have my own thoughts that didn't first marinate in a pop culture-informed bubblegum brain stew. And as an adult, I appreciate that — but when you're a kid who just wants to fit in, the prospect of being a self-possessed adult is hardly consolation from being picked on. I just wanted some fucking Hit Clips of New Kids on the Block and a marathon of TGIF half hour sitcom fluff and pepperoni pizza from the Hot Stuff counter at the Circle C in town while making neon Hot Loops friendship bracelets with my friends. They wanted me to pick an encyclopedia and page through it until I came to an entry about a thing that I didn't know about. They wanted me to listen to NPR and learn how to crochet. They wanted me to learn calligraphy.
A few weeks ago, Stacey posted a Facebook status about her husband, "best hub-band in the world." He had bought her tickets to Sugarland or Carrie Underwood or some other FEST type concert with a crowd demographically indistinguishable from a white pride rally or CPAC. OMG SOOOOO FUNNNN!!! CANT WAAAIIIIITTTTTT.
The Status was written at about the same reading level as the note she left on my locker before science class that one day in 1997, the day she told me that everyone thought I was a lesbian with this other bullied girl named Janet. I remember my hands shaking when I read the crumpled notebook paper, the cruelly round script of an 8th grade girl with a purple gel pen. "Ur ugly & flat chested & u have a receeding hairline," [sic] it said. "U think ur the QUEEN OF THE CROP. I would invite u to my birthday but no 1 wants u there in ur little girl clothes." That was far from the only note, but it's the one I remember the best. To this day, if I think about the first half of eighth grade, it's like I'm 13 again pretending that I know who No Doubt is at a middle school dance, and this woman — well, she was a girl then — whispering into my former best friend's ear about me and glancing over at me, the corners of her eyes crinkled in private sadistic amusement. Whatever mud they were slinging back and forth at close range would be in the next locker note. I thought about the constant eye rolling, the barring me from the lunch table. And then there was her fixation on how I dressed — I'd worked the whole summer prior to 8th grade at the community pool and used the money I'd earned to buy myself new school clothes. I bought a pair of JNCO jeans and a ringer tee that had a glitter applique of Smurfette on it. My mother drove me to Ragstock in Dinkytown and I bought a vintage green and brown floral button down with big lapels. I bought a pair of platform oxfords from Delia's. Making fun of my clothes was Stacey's favorite thing.
Being bullied was a new experience for me, as I tended to control social situations rather than be bested by them. The first time I made another kid cry was in kindergarten, when I told a girl named Jenny that she wasn't standing how "cool girls" were supposed to stand. She pushed me off the slide and I broke my nose, but I'm pretty sure I made my point.
The next time I remember making a kid cry, it was a boy named Chris, who pushed me into the coat room of my first grade classroom, telling me I was an ugly nerd, and I told him that one day he would grow up to be a stinky loser, because he was dumb and they don't give jobs to dumb people. Two days later, Chris grabbed my wrist in gym class and broke my brand new neon green plastic watch. I was moderately bummed about the watch, but I knew I had still won; that as long as I could make people feel bad about themselves, it didn't matter if I was the smallest or if I didn't know how to dress or how to sing along with the radio on the bus. I will FUCK WITH YOUR SOUL, I would have thought if I knew that "fuck" was a word.
And ever since, I can't stop myself from stockpiling an arsenal of shitty, hurtful, bridge burn-y things to say to people who I've observed acting like assholes. I thought of it as a harmless pastime, a way to defend the weak against the strong. So I'm six and a third grader named Patrick made my friend feel bad? Patrick's singing voice sounds like Kermit the Frog and his mom smells like a bar. So I'm 10 and a girl named Betsy made fun of my brother's pants? Betsy has poodle-hair and runs like she has a broken hip and if a bear ever chased both of us I would be faster than her and Betsy would be eaten by a bear. When I was writing for TV, one of my cowriters joked once that cast auditions should consist of comedians entering a room one by one, and they have to stay until I make them cry. The people who last the longest get cast. Ha. Ha. Ha. Erin is definitely not BEING NICE.
When Stacey focused her mean girl aggression on me, I couldn't work my cunty child magic anymore. All I could do is run up the stairs after cross country practice and try to slam my face down on my pillow before my first unmuffled sob startled the cat. Stacey was just jealous of me, said my mom. That was a nice thing for my mother to say, but I knew at the time it wasn't true. What I had wasn't what Stacey wanted. She didn't want to have the top score on the science test or be the first chair flute player or have perfect attendance in Catechism. But she had what I wanted — she had friends. She was adored. She had a cousin who french braided her hair and rolled her jeans. She'd have sleepovers and invite every girl in my grade except me. She'd mimic the way I talk in front of other girls who used to be my friends. They'd laugh.
Despite the relentless emotional terrorism of eighth grade, I never lashed out at her. My acid tongue, my brain bubbling with innovative nastiness — my carefully honed defenses — were dulled around her. I knew I should have said something; I'd think, years later, of brilliant comebacks that never saw the light of day. Connecting with your former childhood nemesis on Facebook means l'esprit de l'escalier goes on forever.
Eighth grade girls are like wet cement, and the people who touch them leave smeared handprints, carved initials, crudely crooked scars. After that year, Stacey and I steered clear of each other. By our junior year of high school, whatever grip she had on the girls in my class had loosened, and senior year, she and I had reached an awkward truce. I grew boobs and was voted homecoming queen; she lost her virginity and told me about it in the locker room.
What kept me from dissolving during the shit time Stacey went out of her way to be a jerk to me was this notion that even though she had power over me then, time would prove me "right." Sure she had the backyard trampoline and the boy-girl parties I coveted when we were 13, but some day my hard work would pay off and I'd leave town for a good college. I'd end up living somewhere far away from Wisconsin, somewhere like Boston (I was obsessed with Boston, due to bricks being a sign of class and also not knowing what class was). One day I'd be working a job I loved, I'd have a life rich with experience, a million stories for dinner parties. I'd travel. I'd know things. I'd know interesting people. I'd experience things she'd never experience. And that's how I'd "win."
But part and parcel to my "winning" was my middle school tormenter agreeing with my definition of what it means to live a better life than another person. I've traveled the country and lived abroad, but I've had a string of relationships that didn't work out including a failed engagement. I graduated from college and my job sitch is fantastic, but I live in an apartment around the corner from a liquor store that has to buzz you into the room where you can buy wine. I couldn't be happier with my personal life, but I don't own a car. I live in one of the most exciting places in the world and can do almost whatever I want almost whenever I want it, but I'm childless. I met all three Hanson brothers one time during a shoot and one of them winked at me but I've never been to a Green Bay Packers game. What I really want is for her to acknowledge that she wishes her life were different, that she wishes her life were mine.
In my staircase wit-drunk imagination, I'm able to wield the POWER OF THE INTERNET to point out the smallness of Stacey's life. Bitchy Facebook status responses would be a start, yeah, but then there's Twitter. There's Instagram. I could 1- Sign up for Vine and 2- Make super mean, hurtful Vines. And then she'd definitely feel bad about the way she treated me. I don't know. The plan is embryonic.
This is me at my most petty and small. Wanting to use social media to make Stacey cry in her married toy-littered Today Show living room is an adult woman letting the memory of a 13-year-old girl who no longer exists continue to get the best of me; I've been operating under the misapprehension that there's a rhyme or reason to adolescent cruelty, that somehow justice is due in response — maybe I've watched too many teen movies. Who cares if Stacey knows that her life reads like slow soul death? Why does my ability to move on from eighth grade depend on another person?
I could "win" by letting pubescent assholery go instead of focusing on all the ways I could convince my middle school bully ON FACEBOOK that my life wins the life-off I've convinced myself was ongoing. I should be the bigger person, continue on with the life I've worked to build for myself, be nice, but — Jesus — that blinking curser below my former bully's status update is so tempting.
So instead of righting years of festered resentment, instead of directly addressing childhood pain, instead of doing anything meaningful or cathartic or constructive, I wimp out again. I click "like."
Image by Jim Cooke.