“You won’t believe what Karl said today,” my husband chuckles, plunking a lone ice cube into his rocks glass.
Karl is one of the radiologists in my husband’s practice. He also happens to have a daughter about the same age as my daughter, D., who is a seventh grader.
“What?” I say, slicing cucumbers into thin rounds for the salad.
“This is good. Karl came into the reading room and he sat down and looked like shit. Just exhausted. He gave this big sigh and then said, ‘Has the entire climate of your household been completely upended by the demise of One Direction?'”
I crack up. “Okayyy. What did you tell him?”
“I said, ‘D. doesn’t give one single fuck about One Direction, Karl. She’s not into that kind of stuff. Now, say, if Benedict Cumberbatch had announced that he was quitting Sherlock or if they were canceling Dr. Who or Supernatural, that would be a complete cause for hysteria. But One Direction? Nah.”
“I’m thanking the Nerd Gods that our kid inherited our Nerd Genes.” I pop a crouton into my mouth and grab the salad tongs. “D. did say that some of the girls at school were completely freaking out about it, though. I mean, crying, for Christ’s sake.”
“That’s what Karl was saying,” my husband shakes his head. “It’s complete emotional chaos. Crying and whining and despairing and constant phone activity. Talk about drama overload.”
“Zayn.” I wrinkle my nose. “Jeez, who even names their kid that?”
Later that night, I get a Facebook message from my friend Amy. Her daughter is also 13.
“Haley is going through some bad bullying from the group of girls she hangs out with,” she writes. “These girls are all big One Direction fans and Haley is the only one who really isn’t into them any more. She’s just kind of over it. But these girls were all broken up about that Zayn kid leaving, and Haley said something like, ‘You know, it doesn’t really matter,’ and these girls immediately turned on her. Boom, just like that. Now she’s being flooded with all of these mean texts and nasty messages on her Facebook wall.”
“That’s crazy,” I write. “That sucks. How is Haley doing?”
“She’s upset but okay enough about it to talk to me. Which I am grateful for. I told her that obviously, this is stupid and she should ignore them and that I was proud of her for being herself. But guess what these girls did? They went on Instagram and blurred Haley’s face out of every group picture they had.”
When I read those words, I go cold in my bones. As fast as the times are changing, some things remain eerily the same.
The summer before I entered eighth grade, the group of “friends” I was part of decided that it was my turn to be ostracized. It didn’t come as a huge surprise; this group of girls turned on each other on a regular basis. They had been doing it all year.
Of course, at some point, it was going to be my turn, but when the time came, I was unprepared. The rapidity and the viciousness of it left me gasping.
One afternoon that summer, a boy from my grade called me on the phone. I was puzzled, because I knew this kid only marginally. He’d been in my gym class, but we’d never really spoken.
“Hey,” I said cautiously into the phone.
“Hey, there. Having a nice summer?”
“It’s okay, I guess.”
“Well, guess what your best girlfriends did today?” he said, in a silky voice.
I tried to choke something out but it caught in my throat. It ended up sounding like a faint and garbled “mew.”
“They took all of the pictures of the group that had your face in it. All of them. And they burned them in Shannon’s backyard.”
I placed the telephone gently back into the receiver.
The message was clear.
We can erase you.
We can make you disappear.
Without us, you don’t exist.
Without us, you are nobody.
And sadly, part of me believed them. I was 13 years old and didn’t really know who I was; I was still in the process of figuring it out. What girl, at the tender age of 13, really knows any of that stuff? I knew I was shy and that I liked to read and that math wasn’t my favorite subject and that maybe I wanted to kiss a boy somewhere down the road, but that was about it.
What did I know of the more difficult terrain of myself?
This weekend, my husband and I took the girls to the mall. At one point, I separated myself from the group to sneak off for some Easter gifts and all things chocolate. Later, as we were driving home, my husband broke into a grin and addressed D., eyes twinkling at her in the rearview mirror.
“Hey, D. Wanna tell mom what you said at the mall?”
My teenager rolled her eyes at him and plopped her headphones on, but she was smiling a little. “Jeez, Dad. Whatever.”
I laughed. “Okay, what? Spill.”
“Well,” he smirked, “I needed to get some shaving gel, because I’m out, and so I took the girls into Sephora. D. took two steps in there and physically recoiled. She said to me, in this horrified voice, ‘What the heck are we in here for? This store sells, like, makeup and stuff.'”
I rubberneck around to look at my daughter, who has heard but isn’t meeting my eye. “Yo, D.!” She grudgingly removes her headphones. “What’s wrong with makeup?”
“God! Mom.” She shakes her head and puts her headphones back on. “Gross popular girls wear makeup. And all they care about is getting a boyfriend. They’re horrible. You won’t catch me dead wearing makeup.”
The day is unseasonably warm, and when we get home, D. marches out to the backyard, headphones still firmly on her ears. As usual, she heads for the swings. I watch her out the kitchen window as she pumps her legs, seeking higher ground. My husband sees me watching her and smiles. He wanders over and watches her, too.
“She’s really going for it out there.”
“She always does. The girl loves to swing.”
He laughs. “She’s a funny kid.”
“She is. A great kid, but funny. I worry about her sometimes.”
“Why?” He looks puzzled. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
“It’s just…this age, you know? Kids can be so cruel at this age, I mean, downright vicious, and I don’t think she has the skills to handle that kind of thing. She’s fairly immature for her age. Look at her. Five foot seven and still playing on the swings.”
“Aren’t you happy about that, though? She’s not boy-crazy or dressing like a tramp or sneaking beer out of the refrigerator.”
“Yeah, I’m grateful for that. I am. I’m glad she’s not in a rush to grow up. It’s the others I worry about.”
“Kids can be little bastards. But she’s a smart kid.”
“She calls herself a nerd. Like, that’s really how she sees herself.”
He gives a sharp little laugh. “So what? We were both nerds. Hell, we still are nerds. We say that all the time.”
“I know, but do you think she really believes that? Deep down?”
He puts his hand on the small of my back. “I think the kid is all right. You worry too much. Just…get yourself off the ledge and enjoy her, okay? Just the way she is.”
Just the way she is.
My funny, quirky, brainy, unbridled girl, with curls that run riot like wild horses.
It takes another few minutes before I can tear my eyes away from the window, away from the sight of her soaring, high as she can go.
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