By: Julie Gamberg
Children in junior high often respond to authenticity with cruelty. I imagine this is especially so at large, public junior high schools like the one I attended, and perhaps it was made even more extreme because I and many other kids were bussed from all over the city – meeting for the first time in a wealthy neighborhood that many of us did not live in. At my junior high, students were either cruel, tried to stay under the radar, or else inadvertently wore a Fuck With Me, Please! sticker. Since anyone who behaved with genuine kindness or authenticity, or showed any humanity, or who was different in any way, screamed Fuck With Me, Please, even the kindest amongst us tried to keep a lid on it, resorting to eye rolling and sarcasm, to avoid being a victim even as we also tried to avoid perpetrating genuine cruelty.
Yet I had one single and memorable experience of authenticity and genuine kindness in junior high school and I am sorry to say it did not come from me. I was walking through the quad with one of my closest friends when we bumped into a friend of hers I had never met. She introduced me and told us she’d been wanting us to meet because we looked so much alike. My alarm bells went off. At our school, this was an invitation to make some sort of snide comment – the possibilities ranged from the slightly sarcastic to the truly mean. There were two people we were supposed to insult: our mutual friend for her “retarded” concept of what “alike” is, and each other in girl-one-up-manship, implying that we each thought we, ourselves, were prettier (this was a few years before we would flip the script, arguing vociferously that the other was prettier). Yet, at heart, we were nice girls, so I prepared to do the absolute kindest thing that could possibly be done in junior high: Say nothing. I stood mute, basking in the glow of my own generous warmth and non-snarkiness that was my silence. And then the look-alike did the most amazing thing. This thirteen-year-old girl, in the middle of a lion’s den, in the middle a viper’s nest, said, “Oh, what a compliment!” I was flabbergasted. In awe. Ashamed. I would never, ever, have been able to make myself that vulnerable in junior high. The things I could have said! The things that normally would have been said. The least of which: “To you, maybe!” Or, “Oh, well I guess you should just follow me around then, Lezzie!” And so on.
I recently wrote to a mom friend who I had been incredibly close to at the beginning of motherhood – it seemed clear that we were BMFF (Best Motherhood Friends Forever), talking daily about our little ones, sharing insight, trading readings and theories, consulting each other over every decision, anxiety, concern, joy. Then, at one point, she fell nearly completely out of touch in a way that reminded me of other new, red-hot friendships I have had. I have known other friend-collectors who lay it on hot and heavy in the beginning, and then relegate the friendship to a twice-a-year gossipy lunch. They must have dozens of these semi-intimate, sparsely connected relationships. Although I knew that was a possibility, we had clicked so intensely, at such a key moment in both of our lives, that I hoped that she had just gotten busy and had forgotten to water the garden of our friendship. So I wrote her a letter telling her that. That I adored her, and missed her, and missed our connection and that, as busy as she may be (and me too!), I’m wondering if we can find ways to be more connected – to talk, or see each other, or have a playdate. I also wrote, in this extremely vulnerable way, about how challenging it is for me when relationships are very intense then cool off completely and that it is not always easy for me to dive back into that intensity, that I’m more of a keep it steady type person. I even wrote about connections to childhood issues (lest you’re thinking TMI! TMI! I would like to remind you, dear reader, that these were the types of conversations we had just been having almost daily, not to mention intimate discussions about our vaginas, breasts, and so on), and told her that I totally get if that isn’t her but if not, I wonder if there’s some middle ground that might suit us both well? It was a very kind letter. No sarcasm. No defensive offense. No cruelty. And what I got back was a quick, curt reply (weeks later!) saying, basically, she’s sorry if I don’t like it.
So here’s the thing: I thought I was in Authentic-ville, and really we were in Walls-Up-Fuck-You-Junior-High. I don’t know how we split our friendship into those parallel universes, or when or why it happened. But I was mortified to have been so: These are my issues, blah blah, I care about you so much, blah blah, and to get back what felt like everyone in the room laughing at me.
Every time we show someone who we really are, talk about how we really feel, show our soft spots and remain open, we risk this particular type of humiliation. I wonder about the girl with the grace and the poise in junior high. I know there is no way to keep my daughter from being on the wrong side of barbed comments, of disregard, and disrespect, of cruelty, and just plain inauthenticity. But I do wonder how that sort of grace comes to be? How do you learn to value your own real self, in the face of that self being made fun of, being socially unacceptable? We spend so much time teaching the values to children of not teasing, of accepting themselves and others for who they are, but I’ll tell you from lots of experience, not like you don’t already know, the adult world does not work like that. It is often better than junior high, much better, but it can also often be shockingly as bad if not worse. I think about that girl surprisingly often. She made a huge impression on me with her courage and kindness. She did something I was unable to do in that moment, and it has set a bar for me ever since. I hope that I pass that on to my own child and that, when the moment comes to decide whether to flee from herself or stay fast, that instead of standing there in polite silence, that she will do me one better.