When I look back over my school years, I have many wonderful memories. I attended a small Christian school. I was the oldest in my family, born late in the year, and kind of a quiet kid at school. So I appreciated the fact that I pretty much knew everyone there. It felt safe and comfortable. I liked my teachers and I had friends. In grade 8, I had one very close friend who I felt comfortable to be myself around and we spent every recess laughing and talking.
Grade 9 began the same way, but things changed when we took a class ski trip (Yes, there is a hill in Manitoba!). I remember the first day was a lot of fun, falling down laughing with my friend as we repeatedly tumbled down the hill in a tangle of skis and equipment. That evening, I felt a bit ill and went to bed early, while the rest of the class hung out together. The next morning my friend drove in a different vehicle to the ski hill and I didn’t run into her again for the rest of the day. It seemed strange, but I still wasn’t feeling well so I shrugged it off. I spent a few days at home and finally returned the following Monday.
It didn’t take long for me to realize something was up. I wasn’t the most outgoing kid but no matter who I said hi to that morning, no one answered me. By afternoon, one of the guys had pity on me and told me that a few girls had decided amongst themselves and convinced my friend that they were no longer going to speak to me or acknowledge my presence in any way. And just like that, with the snap of one mean girl’s finger, I went from spending my recess laughing and playing ping pong in the hallway, from feeling confident and safe and comfortable, to hiding in the bathroom, waiting for the bell to ring and class to begin.
Monday turned into Tuesday and then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I didn’t think it would last, I mean, I had known these girls since grade 1. They were subtle enough that not one of my teachers ever noticed and being a kid who never rocked the boat, I didn’t even consider telling them. And looking back I really can’t say why I didn’t tell my parents either. Maybe because I didn’t realize these girls’ staying power and by the time a month had passed, I was kind of used to the routine.
In fact, I never told a soul.
Mean words or insults were never spoken but it didn’t matter. Silence is a weapon just as deadly. It was a dagger straight to the heart of my confidence and my self-worth. And though not every girl actively participated in the shunning, they stood by silently and though they offered me an apologetic smile from time to time, they did nothing to stop it.
The thing that still bothers me today is that I never questioned it. I didn’t put the blame at the feet of those girls where it belonged, but I just went with the assumption that it was me. I wasn’t worthy. That’s where the insight of an adult would have been valuable. But I bottled it up inside and pretty much spewed venom once I got home. My sister took the brunt of it and though the guilt of taking out my anger on her haunts me to this day, I am privileged to call my sister my best friend. She has offered me grace and forgiveness without a word of accusation or resentment.
And to be honest, looking back, I’m sure that is what got me through that year. I had the most wonderful loving parents, siblings, and extended family. It was hard. It was painful. It was lonely. But when I walked in that door at night, no matter how broken I was on the inside, I knew I was loved.
Poking the Bear
It is still hard for me to think back on those days. Frankly, even writing about it this many years later required the use of Kleenexes. I ask myself why. Is it self pity? It’s almost like I long to find a way to reach back in time and wrap my arms around that lonely, confused girl, to comfort and reassure her. Grade 9 was the final year in that little school and the following year, many of us attended a Mennonite high school where we were little fish in a big pond.
The first day of school, like the glutton for punishment I was, I sought out these same girls at assembly and sat next to them. Better to face the “enemy” I knew, than risk encountering an even worse enemy. But suddenly, in this new school, facing all these strangers, they were in the same position I was. And it was as if I’d imagined the previous year. They talked to me as if it had never happened. Not wanting to “poke the bear,” I said nothing until a few weeks later when I worked up the courage to ask my former best friend, “Why?”
“I don’t know” was the only answer I was given. Extremely unsatisfying, but likely very honest. There truly was no reason. There was nothing wrong with me. I had done nothing to deserve it.
It was the only time we ever referred to it and though I carried on “friendships” with those girls, I was cautious, guarding my heart carefully. But gradually God brought other people into my life who started to knock down the walls I’d put up. I met a girl my first week of college who became my closest friend for the next four years. I’ll never forget the day she turned to me and through her tears of laughter said, “Krista, you always make me laugh. You are so funny.” Such a simple statement. She knew nothing of my history. But it jolted me to my core. I’ve never forgot that moment. It was balm to a very bruised soul and it was the beginning of God doing a beautiful work of restoring and healing in my life.
Defending the Underdog
I’ve changed so much since then. I still bear scars from that year and often battle the lies while listening hard for the voice of truth. But God has also used my experiences to refine me. He developed my compassion, my sense of justice, my loyalty. I value true friendship in a way that I don’t think I ever could have before. I’m passionate in defence of the underdog. Just ask my kids. I’ve shocked them more than once when I’ve jabbed an accusing finger at their chest and asked, “Did you stand up for them? Did you participate in laughing or talking about them behind their back?!” It’s a bit of a hot button topic for me so I tend to be a little overzealous. But I’m also passionate about teaching my kids where their true value lies, that first and foremost they are a child of God. A heavy price was paid for them and they can stand tall in the knowledge of who they are and whose they are.
We all run into “mean girls.” I can’t prevent it for my kids or intervene every time someone hurts their feelings. Not every “mean girl” is an instigator or a ring leader but the damage we do when we do nothing is just as devastating. When we stand by and watch it happen; when we smile at the mean joke; when we don’t “unfriend” that person who keeps posting junk about people. An uncomfortable realization was discovering that I had a “mean girl” hidden inside me as well. In the midst of my misery I turned around and did it to my sister.
So all this personal growth, all these lessons learned, does that mean, if I had to go back, I’d choose to do it again? Not a chance! But thankfully it’s not up to me. I can defer to His wisdom and trust that none of it was beyond His control.
I may not like thinking back on that time of my life but I do like who I am. And that’s not something I was able to say for a long time. It’s only by His grace.