I was never a mean girl.
But I have known a few mean girls in my life.
As a child I was shy, and then, when people got to know me, I was goofy and overly loving. This wasn’t a formula for social success, but that didn’t matter much in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, where my memories of life begin. You only had a few choices as far as children your age to play with. I always had friends. I remember running up to one of them on the playground at Claremont’s tiny school and hugging her and saying, “I just love you so much!”
I’m still this way about friendship. Puppyish and delighted. I find myself thinking, “Dial it back, Karen, don’t be so effusive!” But no matter how much I try to be cool about it, I haven’t changed much in the intervening years, despite my interactions with some…
Really. Mean. Girls.
This story starts in December of 1970, when we moved from Rapid City, SD, to Edina, Minnesota. At the time, Edina was the most prosperous suburb of Minneapolis, and my prosperous uncle lived there, so of course that’s where we absolutely had to live according to my mother.
Edina, Minnesota is a bad place to be poor.
At first we rented the parsonage of my uncle’s church, which wasn’t an auspicious debut to Edina society, but there we were, the poor relations from South Dakota. My sister and I were enrolled in the same grade school, where the social hierarchy seemed to be centered on a playground slide called the “barn door.”
Let me describe this thing to you, please.
The barn door was a huge piece of metal set at an angle, like a 12-foot wide slide. There were ladders at each end, and a thick pole attached across the top. The idea was, you’d climb a ladder and shinny out on that pole, then slide down, landing I-don’t-know-how because it was really steep. The other side was just an empty drop to the playground.
I’m not making this up and I’m not describing it very well, but I ran it by my sister and she confirmed that this was real. Before I asked her, I spent ten minutes Googling “dangerous old playground slides.” I’m properly horrified, but I didn’t find an example.
So, back to the barn door.
No one actually used this as a slide. It was more like a set for a grade school production of Lord of the Flies. Kids would edge out onto the pole and straddle it like birds on a wire, clinging to their perch, crowing and jeering while the kids beside them tried to shove them down the slide. Other kids scrambled up the face of the slide and dragged the pole sitters down, something like the zombies swarming the wall in World War Z.
I was a retiring child, but I did love a challenge. That spring I’d gotten myself up there, which was nearly impossible to do because this playground feature was always mobbed. An older girl yanked on my coat to drag me down and I told her she was a ding-dong. So that’s what they called me. They were three nameless, faceless older girls who bullied me. I’d be walking down the hall minding my own business and one of them would see me and shout out “DIIIIIIIING-DOOOOOONG” and the others would join in.
There went my day.
I never made friends at this school and was desperately lonely. When summer came, I played with my sister and her friend Susan, or hung out in the basement where my brother’s room was, and we played Matchbox and Hot Wheels for hours. I was basically fine. That’s how it always was, right? Three weird kids moving somewhere new, enduring their time of being social pariahs by retreating into imaginative play. That was us.
A Fresh Start.
That summer, my parents bought a little Craftsman house in what felt like (to me) a neighborhood of sprawling contemporary fantasy castles. We were still in Edina, but our new home was in a better school district and a fancier neighborhood. I know the prevailing wisdom was to “buy the worst house in the best neighborhood.” But that means you’re always going to be the poorest people in the neighborhood.
That’s what we were, there in our tiny house with 1940s bark cloth wallpaper we couldn’t afford to replace, because my (then) stepdad immediately got laid off or fired, and my mother was newly pregnant and she certainly wasn’t going to go back to work. In contrast, our neighbor had an indoor swimming pool. And a sauna. And five kids who each had their own room.
I’d never understood how poor we were until we moved to this second house in Edina, but I figured it out quickly. Edina was the beginning of my education in the particulars of the American class system, which fascinates and angers me. That’s another blog post entirely, or you can read the Gentry books, because his struggles with it echo my own.
But back to fifth grade. When it came time to start school, I didn’t have any shoes; the heel had broken off my summer sandals, and my other shoes had a big hole in the sole. Mom took me to Southdale mall in my socks to get a pair of shoes.
Strangely enough, I was not a social pariah in this new school. I was immediately befriended by two girls; Nancy and Mary Ann.
Nancy, the Queen Bee
Nancy was short and blonde, with a pinched face and small, sharp teeth. She lived in a large multi-level ranch home on a cul de sac within walking distance of my house. She had a teenage sister who was blonde, plump and mean, and a middle-school-age brother who was also blond and mean. These three kids dealt with each other in a spiteful, cutting way that baffled me. Yes, my sister and I fought, and sometimes we ganged up on our older brother just to be creeps, but we were essentially calm with each other.
Still, I liked going over to Nancy’s house because it had the first family room I’d ever encountered, with wood paneling and special casual furniture and a big color TV. And they had snacks. We never had snacks at my house. Ever. The likely reason was my brother, who mercilessly ate through anything like that. But they had snacks at Nancy’s, and every so often, she’d ask me “Do you want a snack?” and I’d sheepishly say yes. And then she’d regale me with a wonderland of choices, from ice cream sandwiches to chips to Pudding Cups and so on.
I don’t remember ever seeing Nancy’s father, though he lived there. Her mother was a short, stocky, scowling presence with a brunette beehive. My only clear memory of her is from that Christmas. One afternoon that winter, I came over and Nancy let me in the front door and we walked past their formal living room. Nancy’s mother was in there sitting on the couch, cocktail in hand, staring at the lights of her flocked white tree, decorated with green and blue and gold glass ball ornaments. She didn’t even look at us.
I was disturbed by Nancy’s mother that day. She seemed palpably miserable in her sophisticated living room; silent, brooding, and drunk. To be fair, maybe she was simply having a drink and enjoying her fancy tree.
But I don’t think so.
Mary Ann, the worker bee
The other part of our trio, Mary Ann, was going to be gorgeous, but at age 11 she was overly coltish; tall and thick in that athletic, muscular way that signals Scandinavian heritage and athletic ease. She had a huge smile with big straight white teeth, and tawny skin and wavy golden brown hair that was always done up in two childish braids.
Her hair and clothes were oddly juvenile, for a fifth grader. This was 1971, so there were cute, mod choices out there for girls, but Mary Ann always had on a plaid Polly Flinders smocked dress and those braids. The effect was very Cindy Brady. She was the youngest of many girls–she had four or five older sisters–so there must have been a sizable pile of hand-me-downs.
I only went to Mary Ann’s home a few times, but her many sisters were amazing. Tall and toothy and fashionable, laughing and joking, radiating intelligence and vigor, like healthy, strapping versions of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Someone was always getting ready to go skiing.
So, that’s Nancy and Mary Ann. I’d gone from friendless to having two best friends. They apparently didn’t mind my poverty, and the fact that I had very few clothes, and there were no snacks at my house. But I soon discovered that I’d been ushered into this trio for one reason, and one reason only.
They invited me in so they could leave me out.
To be part of a clique felt wonderful, at first. That sense of inclusion was intoxicating. But my lack of experience meant that I didn’t understand that along with inclusion came exclusion. I was clueless as to their social dynamics. I had no defenses when they’d not speak to me for a day or two, or do things secretly without me and then let me know “accidentally” so I’d be sure to feel left out. At least once a week they’d “ditch” me. Ditching was new to me, and humiliating. We’d all go to the girls’ room, and I’d come out of my stall, and they were gone.
Exclusion was devastating. And constant. One day, I was so upset by them that I came home and cried to my mother about it. That was a mistake. Without my knowing, she called each of their mothers and basically told these women that their daughters were rotten little brats who should have been drowned at birth. Mom maybe even used those words, I don’t know, she had a temper.
And of course both Mary Ann and Nancy sneered at me the next day, accusing me of “having your mom call our moms.” I had no idea Mom had done that, and was humiliated beyond words. Also, Nancy sneered at me for “eating all our snacks.” I was angry about that, because I’d had maybe a snack a month over there. Did my delight show that much? (probably). Then, miraculously, they decided to bring me back into the fold.
This went on for just a few months. Occasionally, they’d fight with each other, and each vie for my friendship. I found this triangulation excruciating. I was always relieved when they’d make up and I could go back to my role as third wheel, in spite of the fact that sooner or later, I’d be on the outs myself.
Listen, I had options.
When I was home, I played with my neighbor, Marcy, who lived in the house with the pool. I went to slumber parties for my other classmates, even though I despised sleepovers. There was a girl named Robin—a smart girl, but she was an only child, which was unheard of back then, so she could be a little intense. She invited me over to play, and lobbied hard for me to be her best friend. She even wrote some desperate notes to me about it. I didn’t know how to handle her ardent girl crush, so eventually, I ignored her (I’m sorry, Robin, I should have been friends with you, I really should have).
I could have made other friends, but there was an allure to the roller coaster of friendship with Mary Ann and Nancy. It was so awful when they were being awful, and then so fun when they were being fun. I couldn’t break free, but I was increasingly miserable. My stomach hurt all the time. I was missing school because of it.
Events come to a head.
That January, bronchitis kept me out of school for two weeks. I probably could have come back sooner, but it was a relief not to participate in the drama, and my stomach needed a rest. Of course, when I finally had to come back to class, it knotted right up again because they weren’t speaking to me.
At that point, it was almost normal. I got busy on my makeup assignments and waited for my time in exclusion hell to be over. But that wasn’t going to happen. Another girl, Renee, stopped by my desk and let me know with a smile that one day at recess, Nancy and Mary Ann had held a mock trial in my absence, to decide whether or not they still had to be friends with me.
The verdict was no.
I remember what that felt like, to hear about that trial, to imagine something like this taking place in front of (and with, there had to be a jury, right?) my classmates. I felt the scald of shame and humiliation under my skin, but I didn’t cry. I turned to steel. I resolved to never speak to either of them again.
Of course, those two were annoyed that I’d moved on, and within days they tried to get back in my good graces. I remember sitting in a lunchroom, eating from a tray by myself. They sat down at my table and had a long, loud conversation about how sad they were that “Karen won’t talk to us anymore.” “Even though we’re sorry.” “I really miss Karen, don’t you?” On and on in that vein.
I finished my lunch and picked up my tray and left them sitting there. They were dead to me.
Edina wasn’t all bad.
I try to remember other parts of this school year that had nothing to do with those awful girls. The school was a good one, with fine teachers, which isn’t surprising because this was Edina, Minnesota. I made excellent grades in everything, and won a penmanship award (which will amuse anyone who has to read my handwriting today).
I had my first crush on a real boy (as opposed to Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, and Jack Wild). His name was John. Instead of a short British man with dark hair and a heavy accent, I fell for a tall redheaded boy with chubby cheeks and a great sense of humor. Sadly, he had a crush of his own on a girl named Jane (more on Jane later).
For my classroom’s Minnesota history fair, I wrote a play about pioneers for me and my classmates to perform, and I played the father because we decided we didn’t want any boys to be in it. We brought down the house. For that same fair, one of the girls brought in an electric skillet and made frybread for us all. Does this seem minor to you? It wasn’t. It was a revelation, and I’ve loved frybread ever since.
Since this was Minnesota, we sledded at recess. I smashed into a tree on my (imitation) Flexible Flyer and rode in an ambulance to have my knee checked out (I was fine, and this remains the only time in my life I’ve ridden in an ambulance).
A prim school librarian quietly introduced me to the Narnia and Black Cauldron books at this school. She so had my number. I remember bringing her a plate of Christmas cookies in gratitude.
This period of my life lasted most of a school year, with other classmates and teachers and projects and and recesses full of jumping rope, and jacks competitions, and teaching each other cat’s cradle, and all those sing-song-hand-clap games I could still play if I just had a partner. Why aren’t these memories stronger than my memories of the Mean Girls?
I wish I knew.
A Happier Ending
Within a week, I’d made better friends. I finished the remainder of my time in Edina with Jane and Sarah. Jane had long wavy dark hair and sparkling eyes. There might have even been some freckles involved. She was fresh and steady and smart and funny, like a main character in a middle-reader book. Plucky, cute, smart Jane, a born leader and a fierce ally.
Sarah was kind and diligent, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever met; her honey-colored hair was long, her bangs trimmed with mathematical precision. I remember the gentle, methodical way she’d button her coat, draw on her mittens, and tie her hat before we went out for recess, like she was a loving adult dressing a cherished child for cold weather, only Sarah was the adult and the child, both.
These girls and their sincere, good natured friendship were an antidote to the spiteful machinations of Nancy and Mary Ann. We spent our recesses happily and without incident, until my parents decided to move to Arkansas in early April of that year, 1972. I had a week of popularity before I left, because it was glamorous to be moving. And during that week, Jane and Sarah and I let Nancy and Mary Ann play with us.
I could be merciful, thanks to my elevated status as the girl who was moving away.
Once I moved, I exchanged letters with my former friends, including Mary Ann, who wrote a very concerned letter after I wrote to her about falling off Mark’s horse. Or maybe Sarah wrote that, she was probably more likely to be frightened by something like that.
At any rate, all was forgiven. As it should be. We are all fifth graders at some point in our lives, and we all have lessons to learn about how to be, and how not to be.
Even mean girls.
I like to imagine that Mary Ann outgrew her attachment to Nancy, along with those Polly Flinders dresses, and became more like her dazzling older sisters. I’m sure that sweet Robin found a best friend to whom she could pledge her starry-eyed devotion. I’ll bet Jane and Sarah grew from smart, happy girls into capable Minnesota women who live pleasant, educated, liberal lives in the Edina way. But I think Nancy was just a miserable person, period, and that probably didn’t change.
I don’t know. These are conjectures.
I do know from raising three daughters, that every girl seem to go through a year of social pain like my fifth grade. I’ve told each of my daughters the Ballad of Nancy and Mary Ann, my tragic tale of being ditched in the bathroom and put on mock trial to end the friendship. I wanted my daughters to understand that social humiliation is an inescapable part of growing up for girls. I wonder why, though. I wonder why we’re like this, and if it will ever change.
But that’s not my point. I do have one, you know. And mine is this: I’ve never found myself in a situation like this again in my life. Not even in high school, where Mean Girls thrive.
Oh, I’ve had some lopsided friendships, and friendships that ended in anger, and friends who faded away due to geography or inattention or the reality of how much of myself I can realistically share with other people before there’s nothing left. I’ve been dropped cold by two of my nearest and dearest, both of whom were men, by the way. I’ve even been friends with mean women, but that toxic stuff hasn’t taken hold in my life. They might still play these games, but I barely notice that part of them, and I certainly never engage with it.
So I guess I owe those two fifth graders a debt of gratitude, don’t I? Thanks, Nancy and Mary Ann. You inoculated me against your kind, and the immunity has lasted for fifty years.
No boosters needed.
Some other reading
Why does everyone hate on Edina?: Also linked above, but here it is again, in case you skipped it
A post about Polly Flinders dresses by a funny blogger, with photos: How Polly Flinders Ruined My Life
An academic paper on the Mean Girl Phenomenon: Queen Bees
A photo essay on America’s first indoor shopping mall, where I learned to shoplift: The History of Southdale Center, with photos
I had a lump in my throat reading this, Karen. I have to say, I can’t picture you as that child. I see you as strong and self-assured. If I had to imagine you on the outside and looking in back then, it wouldn’t be due to poverty but ostracism because of to your intelligence. There have been and always will be children (and some adults) who cover their envy and awe of very intelligent people by putting them down. I trust your intelligence has served you better as an adult! [Sending you a hug from Boston]
Oh, I was no doubt an odd one, Linda. But somehow, that becomes more and more of an asset as we age, doesn’t it? Hugs back and much love.
Oof, I have known some mean girls! Loved this essay. 🙂