Adorable pic of my daughter and her friends. Selfie!
A few weeks back I wrote about my absurdly awesome 12-year-old warrior/daughter Emma, who had just gone through an excruciating round of anti-Semitic bullying. Emma endured it, challenged it, refused to put up with it. Many of you reached out with supportive comments, for which Emma and our entire family were extremely grateful.
(It should be noted, by the way, that the bullying has not recurred. Kudos to the leadership at Tomlinson Middle School, and our entire Fairfield community, for moving swiftly and decisively to squelch.)
However, this being seventh grade, Emma is currently embroiled in a drama of a different sort. I wonder if a few of you might be witnessing a similar dynamic in your households.
Emma is seated - and I use that term deliberately, as it pertains to the all-important cafeteria seating - in what I am told is the “popular” group of girls. I say this with more wariness than pride. The group has an approximate membership of ten, who are currently locked in a deeply unfortunate behavioral pattern. Song goes a little somethin’ like this, sing along if you know the words.
Every few weeks or so, the ten girls determine, through a combination of social media and social antennae, which one of their ten is in need of being cast out. Their motivation is straight out of Survivor: they are driven to vote someone off the island in order to avoid being voted off themselves. Period. To avoid being chairless when the music stops, someone else - beside oneself - must be named, shamed, and excommunicated.
This cycle churns on more or less perpetually. Like a boat on a heaving sea of hormones and insecurity, the dynamic never quite settles down. All day, every day, like roving schools of semi-cannibalistic sharks, a subgroup of four or five of them gather into digital huddles called Snapchat Group Chats (let’s call them “SGCs”). The members of an SGC then begin subtly kicking the tires of a Potential Cast Out (PCO):
CN U SRSLY BELIEVE WHAT XX SED TO XY TODAY
GUYS SRSLY XX IS BEING SOOOOO MEAN
This all happens behind the PCO’s back, of course. The PCO may very well be sitting right there among them, spearing a straw into a Capri Sun, utterly oblivious to the fact that she is being stress-tested while she slurps. The phones arrayed around her have been weaponized. As she idly turns her attention towards a Fruit Snack, she is being digitally strip-mined for flaws, weaknesses, and alliances.
Needless to say, the members of the SGC don’t have a genuine grudge against this particular PCO. What they’re really doing is joining forces to prevent becoming the next PCO themselves. By creating an alliance against a different PCO, the SGC is essentially throwing a group lifeline to themselves.
You remember what I told you about the lifeboats, Rose. There aren’t enough. Not enough by half.
Usually, the moment passes. Most PCO nominees fizzle in committee. And it’s on to the next distraction, sleepover, meme.
But every new moon or so…
The tumblers align. And the dreaded (desired?) consensus is reached.
Thus are the adorable ten transformed into the lethal Nine.
Like a stoning in the town square, The Ritual cannot be avoided. So at midnight, as their mothers and grandmothers did before them, the Nine silently slip off their shoes, sneak up behind the new pariah, and stab her with the daggers of abandonment and isolation while shrieking a bloodlusty group-cry to the heavens. (I can’t remember if the blood-soaked ribbons of flesh are then eaten, or burned - check the bylaws of your local school district.)
Anyhoo, last week was Emma’s turn to get sliced to ribbons, so I thought I might just throw this out there into the world, to see if any of you are going through something similar. Because, man - this is a difficult manage.
The Nine rode for Emma on a Sunday night. They slipped in under cover of darkness, phones drawn. Their weapons were silent, and their footfalls sure: the attackers made no sound. Worst of all - when the attack finally came - Emma kept the news to herself, keeping her shame and fear corked in, all night, incubating and festering. She kissed Mom and Dad goodnight through gritted teeth, like some 18th-century amputee gutting out a pre-novocaine mortal wound.
But in the morning, the lid finally blew. KABOOOM.
And I’m telling you: whatever pain and shame she felt from her anti-Semitic bullying last semester? PALED in comparison to this. Being taunted by a bully wasn’t fun, to be sure. But she never felt confused or lost. Her moral certitude grounded her. She felt calm, and above it, from jump.
THIS situation, on the other hand, from the amplitude and pitch of her cries, felt like she was being boiled in oil. Emma was terrified, ashamed, and alone. She begged me to let her stay home from school that day - it will be better tomorrow, she’s sure of it, but today, TODAY, no. NO. She couldn’t possibly face the Nine.
Friends and loyal readers, as you know, I am nothing if not a stern taskmaster. So I told Emma in no uncertain terms, that if she didn’t buck up and face her fears, she would never learn to confront
OH WAIT I ACTUALLY TOTALLY CAVED and let her skip school and come to work with me.
Whaddaya want, it was a total shitshow.
So we rode the New Haven Line together. Her breathing slowly started to lengthen. And the fog slowly began to lift. Her distance from the boiling shame-bath increased. Her emotional body temperature cooled. And critically, her phone - my one ironclad condition for giving her the day off - remained in my pocket, powered down. And the storm cloud began to pass.
By the next morning - shit, by dinnertime that night - all was right with the world. A key member of the Nine had reached out to Emma during her phone-powered-off period (SO SRY!!! IDK U WERE SO SAD!!). That single lifeline reset Emma’s equilibrium. Within 24 hours, Emma was back in the fold. The ten were whole again. The Ritual had ended. She had passed the test.
Sitting with her today, a few days later, I’m not quite sure what to do with my knowledge that Emma will probably treat another girl similarly to the way she was treated that day.
She already has. Jen and I have seen Emma’s behavior during the dark days when she Wore The Black: when we knew that our beautiful Emma was among the knife-wielding Nine, casting out a friend who had hosted a Pitch Perfect 2 sleepover only hours before. In the phone-buzzing throes of mid-Ritual, we knew exactly what was going on. We called her on it. Emma spluttered, helpless, acting and genuinely feeling like a victim herself: XX IS ACTUALLY SO MEAN NOW!! I’M SERIOUS, YOU DON’T KNOW!! Her burning state of inner conflict messily bubbled over as she spastically justified the casting-out.
But she went along with it anyway. The music stopped, she grabbed a chair, and she sure as hell wasn’t letting it go.
These past few days have been a period of relative calm for the Ten. I dropped off Emma at school this morning - a spectacular blue-skied day. Emma was all smiles as she bounced out of my car, singing and laughing as she blended into the thicket of relationships that will provide her with today’s roller coaster.
And then I saw them.
The root cause of the Nine’s witchery. The truest heart of darkness.
The Darkness travels in a pack as well: just like their female counterparts, my daughter and her friends. The Darkness is oily with zits and peachfuzz. They reek of Doritos and socks and ass.
Emma doesn't talk to me about boys yet. When I bring up the subject, I get shut down immediately. Dad. DAD!
My last sight is the Darkness insinuating themselves between my daughter and her friends, fouling the spaces that had once been bonds, spaces that are now fraught with tension, confusion, and doubt.
You fuckers, I squint at the boys, as I pull away in my menacing minivan.
I make eye contact with one of them. He's shorter than the others. Not as oily.
Maybe he's Jewish.
I could ask Emma about him. But I'd probably get nothing. That's the real darkness here, right? The beginning of the stuff I'll never get to know.
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