“Well, I don’t know if I want to say that,” she says, watching me flat iron my hair and apply my BB cream. “Because the girls will laugh at me.”
I grit my teeth together and wait a moment before I respond. I want to respond with hateful comments. Real Mama Bear stuff about what I think about those girls. But that’s not helpful. Fighting mean with mean never seems to work out.
I wish this wasn’t still going on. But it is. The teacher knows about, and she’s doing her best. The three of us, Kate, me, and her teacher, had a sit-down conference about the goings on in the classroom. The teacher made it plain to Kate that she had her back. And I do, too.
But we can’t control them. And, sadly, this won’t be an isolated incident. She will meet mean girl after mean girl after mean girl for the rest of her life.
She doesn’t want to get out of bed. For the second day in a row. I pad into her dark room and sit on her bed. Smoothing back her hair from her forehead, I ask her what she’s thinking.
“Nothing,” she says. “I’m just tired.”
This, from the girl who once told me: I never need sleep because I’m never tired! This from the girl with limitless amounts of energy. This from the girl who ran all over the soccer field laughing last night at practice. This from the girl with a Tigger temperament?
I know what’s going on. I feel the anger welling up in my chest. I want to scream.
But I’m out of moves.
I pull the van up in the Kiss and Ride line. Sliding the gear shift into park, I turn around and coax her up. There are people behind us. But I don’t care. They can go around. She needs a few more minutes.
Her head hanging, she slides up and perches behind me.
Taking her cheeks in my hands, I lift her head up.
“Your name is Kate Susan Bagley, and no one is better than you are,” I say. She nods. But I’m unconvinced.
The van door slides shut. I roll the window down and call to her. She pauses by the window. “I love you. Stand tall!”
She nods. But I know my words fall flat. Tears sting my eyes as I roll the window up and watch her walk away.
I’m crying. And I’m okay with her seeing. Because I want her to know, she’s not alone. Mean girls exist at any age. Even 32.
I’m crying because an email exchange with someone I barely know stunk of mean girl undertones and hit my raw nerves. That exposed nerve that says you’ll never be good enough. It was my raw nerve that says you’re out of her league. That raw nerve that says how dare you think you could be as cool as her.
I’m honest with Kate. I tell her a mean girl hurt my feelings. Just like the girls at school, this mean girl (woman) made it clear she thinks she is better than me.
“But she’s not,” I tell Kate. “She’s just mean.”
I’m playing Taylor Swift’s “Mean” in the bathroom while I get ready. Kate’s standing next to me.
“Did you know Taylor Swift got picked on when she was a little girl?” I ask Kate. She shakes her head. “Well,” I say. “If Taylor Swift let all those mean girls get her down, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy her music. I’m so glad Taylor Swift didn’t let those mean girls get her down.”
“Yeah, me too,” she says. “I love Shake It Off!”
“Me, too!” I say.
I’ve tried to fit in almost all my life. I tried wearing what all the cool girls wore. I tried acting like how all the cool girls acted. I tried talking like them, walking like them. But still, they’d snicker as I walked past. Ignore me when I tried to engage with them.
I spent most of high school eating in the library or the journalism room. I spent a lot of my years at college, trying to fit in, and, after I failed, wandering around the U.Va. grounds with a heavy backpack and a heavier heart, spending hours alone in the library.
As an adult I tried to fit in online with girls I met on the Internet. I tried to fit in with mommy groups. I felt like I was back in high school. There were the Cool Girls. And there was Me.
A couple of years ago, I gave up on trying to make them like me. Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But, mostly, it was too much energy to try to fit in. Around this time, I organically met some new women. Women who didn’t care about how I was dressed (or how my children dressed), how many IG followers I had, how many podcast downloads I boosted, or how many Facebook likes I had.
I didn’t need to fit into anything. Because I just belonged.
I’m a nice girl.
Sometimes I want to be a mean girl. Sometimes I want to be catty. Sometimes I want to talk smack.
Because being a nice girl means sometimes you get hurt. And sometimes, you’re lonely.
But I’m okay with that. I don’t need to fit in. I want something more. I want to belong. And I’m going to keep being nice. No matter what. Because that’s who I am.
We’re driving to soccer practice, and we see a dad and a girl about Kate’s age on the sidewalk. The dad is holding a water bottle, and the girl is holding a soccer ball.
“Hey! That’s the new girl on my soccer team!” Kate shouts from the back seat. “I’m going to be nice to her because that’s part of my job, you know.”
“Oh?” I say.
“Yep. I like being nice.”
“Me, too,” I say.