After I posted my "Why?" rant, I did a fair amount of ruminating and reflecting on whatever role I had in bullying during middle and high school. I can't say I found my hands unstained. While I could not, by any definition, be seen as a bully, my passive responses when I saw it happen aren't a whole lot better. That was a disturbing personal recollection.
The social hierarchy is the single most important force for girls in middle school and high school. It has its own rules and codes, which are in turn rigid and ruthlessly self-policed. It doesn't matter which pack you associate with, the unwritten rules for your pack are understood clearly, if not openly articulated.
When I was in middle and high school, there were four distinct overarching groups we called the Jocks, the Stoners, the Wrenches, and the Dweebs. I belonged to the Jock group, which was actually the catch-all umbrella for several loosely related sub-cliques. The Jocks were the social elites, kids who came from good families, who did well in school, who were college bound, and who were often, though hardly always, members of a sports team. For example, no one was ever going to accuse me of being an athlete. I tried one season of field hockey until I realized it was a vicious game played by vicious girls.
I was pretty far down the totem pole in my group, a few steps away from insignificance. For me and so many other girls in that time and place, it was desperately important to be seen as one of the cool kids, no matter how insignificant I might be. I knew my place, I knew who the girls were who passed judgment on whether or not one was worthy of inclusion, whether or not punishment was deserved for the commission of various sins. These girls were the bullies, the Alpha Bitches, and they relished the ability to inflict pain at will, and control lives. I wanted their approval, or to cut myself the tiniest bit of slack, I didn't want their disapproval.
I had secrets too, secrets so profound and horrifying I couldn't admit them to myself, secrets that would make me something much worse than persona non grata if they slipped out. So I did nothing that might draw attention of the undesirable kind my way. I shut up when I saw things happening that I knew were wrong.
I am not proud of what I'm about to relate, but if I'm going to rant and pontificate about something, then it seems I need to be honest about any personal involvement, however insignificant it may be, in similar events. This one stands out the most clearly in my memory.
I guess I was a sophomore at the time. The Queen Bee that year was Marianne Cooper, a junior. She was gorgeous, tall, slim, big blue eyes, and always seemed cheerful and nice. The teachers loved her - she did her homework, studied hard, always came prepared, she was polite, in short she kissed ass hard and deep. If she was a little rude and pushy with some of the underclassmen, well, that was life, and those kids needed to suck it up and get a backbone. Marianne played three sports, softball in the spring, basketball in the winter, and captained the field hockey team in the fall.
That was the one and only year I tried the game. I was a bench warmer on the JV team, but I was entitled - just barely - to say I was on the team. I'd received a few whacks from Marianne's Minions across the tummy and shins to remind me where I stood in the scheme of things, once even rating a trip from the Queen herself, followed by a sharp, "Get the fuck out of the way," an admonition at once exhilarating and terrifying.
A girl named Monica was not so lucky. Monica was an ordinary girl who had no natural group to attach to. She and her family had moved to our town a couple of years earlier. She was neither pretty nor homely. She was shy and quiet, a freshman. I think playing on the field hockey team was her way of trying to gain access to our group. Under ordinary circumstances, to use a term frequently seen in the news today, she might have been vetted by any number of unwritten processes to see if she was fit for the group. However, one day in practice, she committed an unforgivable sin without realizing she'd done anything wrong. She accidentally tripped Marianne who was running after the ball, causing the Queen Bee to take a face-plant digger.
I really don't relish reliving most of this, pulling it up and looking at it again. Back in the locker room, Marianne and her Minions took violent exception to the accidental trip. There was much yelling and screaming, Monica backed into a corner in utter terror. Hair pulling, face slapping, punches and kicks, the C word used with disgusting frequency. I watched it all and I … did nothing. I watched. It was making me sick, but not sick enough to say something.
I went home and cried for hours on end, castigating myself for just standing there. Promises to the contrary notwithstanding, I didn't work up the courage to step forward. I know it's only a form of rationalization, but what good would it have done? The next day, the field hockey coach, Miss Darby gathered us together (sans Monica) and reminded us that what happened in the locker room stayed in the locker room. We were a team. Well they were a team. I quit after that. It was too vicious in more ways than one.
You see, that's part of the problem. Teachers and coaches don't want to do anything that will upset the stars, the big-name kids (Marianne's father was a well-known attorney). The Marianne's of the world, then and now, carry free passes by the ream. They're good kids, popular kids, come from good families dontcha know. If they're harsh with the weaker kids, then surely they must deserve it.
I know it didn't end for Monica with that single episode. I witnessed at least two episodes where one of the Minions pushed her against the wall, sending her books flying, and another where she was tripped. In each case, I did… nothing. Oh sure, I thought big thoughts. I even had a few quasi-sexual fantasies where I was her rescuer. When the rumors started - rumors that she was a lesbian, and quite paradoxically, that she was a slut who was fucking guys from the city across the river - I went right along with it. After all, one of the rumors hit a little too close to home. No sir, and no ma'am, I did not want that attention pointed at me.
I know Monica came out the other end all in one piece. I have no idea what happened after she graduated. If I knew where she was now, I would apologize to her for being a coward. The last I knew, Marianne was a doctor somewhere in the Midwest.
I like to think I earned a measure of absolution the following year when I befriended a girl who was anathema to the Jocks - fat, poor, and deeply emotionally troubled. In spite of much insinuation that I had no business hanging with her, I never unfriended her. In fact she became one of the best friends I ever had.
What became of the rest of the Minions? A dear friend knows exactly what I mean when I say, "Why, they became Harpies of course!"
NB: The names are made up.