December 01, 2007

Kiss the girls and make them cry

When a kid is having the standard suite of troubles with other kids â teasing, exclusion, general meanness â adults love to claim that the kid whoâs picking on you is only doing it because he has a crush on you. Even as a kid, when my parents would look at my red, frustrated face and say, âOh, he likes you,â I was frankly astonished that adults could be so willfully naive and inductive about the ways of children. If Iâd had any introduction to symbolic logic at that point, I could have made my case, but at the time I was reduced to simply glaring at them and mumbling hopelessly under my breath.

Look, it goes like this: Teasing is one accepted tactic that you can use to simultaneously signal and conceal your crush on another kid, but that doesnât mean that any kid you tease is a kid you have a crush on. This would subvert the entire logic of teasing the kids you like, in the first place. The point of teasing someone you have a crush on is to safely and ambiguously signal the crush without actually declaring it. The whole reason that teasing is the way to do this is because teasing is also what you do to the kids you really, genuinely, donât like. Teasing the kids you do like and the kids you donât like, at the same time, is an incredibly effective way of eliding the difference in your feelings toward them. Itâs like mixing the placebos and the real pills together so no one can definitively tell which is which. Except that you also make sure, safely, that everyone who can properly read the code can tell the difference between the kid you tease in a somewhat friendly or flirty way, and the kid you really do just call names because you think sheâs a dork. These codes are totally obvious, set in stone at each individual school, and unmistakable to anyone under the age of eleven or the height of four feet.

No, I was one of the girls who got teased because that group of boys just really disliked me. I am referring to a small band of mean, dumb fatheads whose full names I recall perfectly but will not reproduce here because, now that I myself am older and stupider and somewhat misty about those playground days, I like to imagine that they have grown up to be nice men, all about to turn 30, acting like adults, in mature relationships with women they treat respectfully. Except for Eliot, who I hope is having a really rough time. Eliot was a jerk to me from second through ninth grades, and it was patently obvious to everyone that it was actually because he disdained me utterly. Actually, specifically, it was because I was a dork and I wasnât one of the Pretty Girls. When one of the Pretty Girls got name-called and teased by boys, you could generally assume that there was in fact a crush operating in there somewhere. For anyone who wasnât one of the Pretty Girls, you could pretty much assume there wasnât. Iâve occasionally wondered what it was like to grow up as one of those Pretty Girls who could go through life knowing that anytime someone was being a jerk to them, it was because that person thought they were pretty and didnât have a better way of expressing it. I wasnât one of them, and though at my school (as, I suspect, at most) the Pretty Girls represented a small minority, not being one was a crime punishable by torment and bullying from the boys.

In elementary school, Eliot, who had the best work ethic of all my self-appointed torturers, mostly applied my punishment through name-calling and by sharing his general and specific theories of my lameness with all his friends, loudly, within earshot of me and my friends, every time I did anything he thought was stupid. Which was pretty much everything I did. He was also putting an interesting twist on crush-related teasing, because he had a crush on one of my friends, and he teased me instead of her. By denouncing me so that she could hear, he was able repeatedly to send her the coded message: âI am comparing you to your lame friend, who is lame. You are not lame, and I am implicitly proving this by pointing out all the ways in which she is lame and you are not.â My theory â that he gave me crap because he disliked me, not because he liked me â was later borne out in junior high, when teasing was abandoned as a sexual technique and actual sex was put in its place. Eliot liked another one of my friends by then, and got to âsecond baseâ with her by buying her a stuffed cow. Without the need to use me as a medium of communication, he simply stopped interacting with me altogether. I, seasoned by years of loathing, tried to treat him as someone likewise beneath my notice, but one thing that Iâve found about ignoring is that you have to be the one to do it first. Otherwise, you just look like someoneâs not talking to you and itâs unclear whether youâve caught on yet.

I have, as I say, wondered what it was like to grow up as a Pretty Girl. I certainly saw many examples of how this might work to the detriment of oneâs character and ability to work well with others. One cold winter morning in fourth grade comes to mind, when several of us normal girls arrived at the classroom with every intention of thawing our fingers at the wall heater, as usual. Only, on this morning, the area around the wall heater had been blocked off, and a sign had been posted. âCLASSROOM SAUNA,â it read. âENTRANCE FOR MEMBERS ONLY.â The sign had been posted by a group of the Pretty Girls, of which a particularly unpleasant young lady I will identify only as Caileen was the ringleader. The teacher had let them âreserveâ the warmth of the heater for their pretty, popular friends and deny it to the rest of us. The teacher didnât think that was what was happening, because she made the stipulation that they had to give a âmembership cardâ to anyone who asked for one. You would think that a rational person who spent all day with fourth-graders and knew what they were like would be able to figure out that such a requirement would make it unlikely for âanyoneâ to actually procure a membership card, because it would necessitate going to the Pretty Girls and asking for one, and thereby legitimizing their authority. Several of my friends and I made a point of spending our mornings out in the cold, stamping our feet and mouthing the word âbitchesâ through the window, rather than knuckling under to those girls. It makes sense to me: these girls knew they were Pretty and therefore Popular, and they had the absolute â and accurate â confidence that most people would want to be in their club. Some of us rebelled, but it was purely formal, and self-defeating because we ended up being cold. Our rebellion â or mine anyway â wasnât born out of a confidence in Right that matched Caileenâs confidence in Popularity; it was simply the only possible, self-fulfilling expression of my frustrated knowledge that my righteous rebellion was completely impotent to trump her popularity. (Caileen came to power the same way a third-world generalissimo does: through the mute, fearing obedience of the masses. Not enough of us believed in sticking our necks out far enough to make real revolution possible, and those of us who engaged in symbolic rebellion were no real threat to her, consigned as we were to mornings in the gulag outdoors while she smoked cigars and tangoed with her cronies - including the teacher - inside. My god, she was a 4th-grade Pinochet. She was Trujillo. She was Pol fucking Pot.) I canât imagine that itâs any accident now, by the way, that Caileen is evidently working in television, and I am an impoverished, single graduate student. Because she must still be a Pretty Girl, and I am still a Dork.

In fourth grade â the same year as the CLASSROOM SAUNA incident â I was in a Girl Scout troop composed of fourth- and fifth-grade girls. Like actual shrews, these creatures looked adorable and were absolutely vicious. Also, like shrews, we apparently needed to eat our own body weight in random junk every few hours just to survive. A lot of time at Girl Scout meetings was spent eating, as I recall, and drinking those colored-sugar-water drinks that were intended to taste like flat orange soda or fruit punch, and which came in the little plastic bottles with the caps you would remove by first unwinding the plastic tab. There was a girl named Jenny in my troop who had not mastered the art of drinking from those bottles and often had a delicate pink or purple circle around her lips when she was done. Jenny gave me palpitations. She had a pale, somewhat round face, and long, straight, glossy dark hair which fell over her kelly green sash in a perfect curtain. She had big dark eyes. She had those tiny little faint freckles on her nose. But Jenny was not a Pretty Girl. I think this was a fundamental component of the crush I had on her, which I think was my first real crush â the first time I remember looking at someone and feeling like all the air had just been kicked out of my lungs and I couldnât breathe but it was okay because even if Iâd been able to draw a breath I wouldnât have been able to speak anyway. I was in instant, bewildering love.

In Jenny, I saw immediately a girl who was, to me, absolutely beautiful â and I have no doubt that wherever she is now, sheâs ravishing â but not, at age nine, possessed of the kind of conventional beauty that is necessary to avoid the immediate antipathy of your peers. She was, I suspect, a Dork like me: she was quiet, and bookish, pale and interesting, but not sunny or outgoing. Because she wasnât outgoing, she was an outsider, and because she was an outsider, she had no way of developing a sparkly insider personality. Even over the course of a yearâs worth of meetings I could see that vicious cycle operate, inexorably and efficiently, on her personality. Part of the reason I remember so clearly what her hair looked like falling across her uniform was that she spent so much time sitting with her head tilted down sort of sadly, when she wasnât being forcibly noogied or actively teased.

In that group, I was very normal: not capital-P Popular, but not an outsider like Jenny. Because I liked her so much and recognized what was happening to her, and knew how it felt, you might think I would have used my status as a normal, insider kid to bring her into the fold and protect her. It would have been really easy: all it would take would be to sit next to her and talk with her a few times. It would have brought her in, and signaled my approval of her to the group. But I didnât do it. This wasnât, as it might immediately seem, to save my own hide, or to keep her in the unpopular position to make sure I didnât fall into it. That wasnât it. I was never one of the popular kids in any setting, but I was never the outsider, either, even with Eliotâs constant barrage of jackassery back at school. I had plenty of good friends and didnât need to protect myself from imminent unpopularity. My failure to befriend Jenny was, simply, lovestruck paralysis. I couldnât sit next to her because I would then have to talk to her. I couldnât talk to her because I couldnât treat her like a normal person, since she wasnât just some normal person to me. Nothing about the crush I had on her could be made to compute in my head, and even if I had been able to figure out some way of dealing with it from the standard playground codes, those codes wouldnât apply in a Girl Scout environment. Here, the rules had always seemed easier, because there were no sexual dynamics going on; now, the rules were inadequate and unclear. Maybe, actually, there was an element of self-protection in staying away from Jenny, since there didnât seem to be anything that I could say or do with her that wouldnât instantly signal a level of interest that didnât make sense.

Because I didnât torment her, either; I just stayed away. I sat next to my own friends in our circle. I stayed a few feet away and tried not to look at Jenny. I didnât say or do anything if, when the troop leaderâs back was turned, another girl would reach over and give Jenny a sharp, painful noogie, our troopâs favorite form of torture. I watched her, sometimes, sitting by herself, head down, hair falling across her uniform sash, a ring of orange around her mouth. I felt like a lovesick puppy watching her, but I realized later that to her, I must have seemed just like all the other girls, staring at her, not talking to her. She spent a lot of time sitting slightly apart from everyone, making friendship bracelets out of embroidery floss. This made me feel somewhat better, because I was able to imagine that this Girl Scout situation was aberrant, and that back at her school she had friends and didnât get picked on. Jenny and I went to different schools, and at my school, though some of the girls were into making friendship bracelets, my friends and I were not. One day, Jenny accidentally dropped the bracelet sheâd been working on, and when no one was looking I picked it up. It was pink and green, and I carried it in my pocket for weeks, maybe months, until it was grubby and gray. Because my friends didnât make friendship bracelets, I couldnât wear it at school without an explanation, and anyway I couldnât wear it to meetings because I didnât want Jenny to see it and think that I had stolen it to be mean, or worse, for her to ask for it back.

Instead, I went to fourth grade, and stood stamping in the cold in the mornings with my friends. At that time, the undisputed sex god of the fourth grade was a popular, tanned, blond boy named David â the polar opposite of Jenny in every way â and his sexiness was the topic of every conversation that he wasnât actually involved in. My friends and I would stand around with our hands in our pockets to keep warm, everyone talking about how hot David was and how much they wanted to French kiss him, and everything was normal and codified. I talked as loudly and obscenely as I could about David, while inside my pocket I held Jennyâs friendship bracelet tightly coiled in my damp hand.

Twenty full fucking years later, Iâm still shy and awkward, and I still havenât figured out how to talk to girls I like. I wrecked it recently with yet another girl who had seemed to reciprocate my interest, and while there was a lot that went wrong there and much about the situation that legitimately made me feel awkward and kind of pissed, I canât help but think that someone else might have been able to create a sparkling, sexy conversation rather than turning into an angry robot. Or the girl I watched dumbly while she moped around lonely boring Santa Cruz for months - just like I watched Jenny â watched her right until she packed up her shit and moved out of town. Eliot, for example, would have gotten to second base for sure. And perhaps this is the answer, to adopt his approach. If Iâd thrown things at her friends and made them cry, or given her a stuffed animal, I bet I couldâve touched her boobs.

Posted by katie at December 1, 2007 12:54 PM

I'm just going to have to resort to another numbered list.

1. Gosh.

2. There's something funny, or terrible, about the way that a line like:
I talked as loudly and obscenely as I could about David, while inside my pocket I held Jennyâs friendship bracelet tightly coiled in my damp hand.
actually looks sweet and romantic to our misty stupid adult eyes even though we know damn well that what it describes is at best conflicting and confusing and at worst totally tragic and traumatic. But it does. It looks lovely and sweet and starry and from what I can tell this is why everyone loves Sarah Waters so much. Is it Sarah Waters I'm thinking of? Yeah. Tipping the Velvet.

3. In the complicated multivariable equation describing teasing and liking, the element that I always found the most terrifying was the way that the Popular People would tease the Unpopular People by pretending to like them. This could be one of those peculiar features of my sexually retarded peer group, but it's cruel enough that I'm inclined to believe it's actually wildly popular in evil adolescent circles. So it goes, you know, Junior High Sex God flirts quite deliberately and visibly with Dorky Lame Unpopular Girl so that she is totally convinced that he likes her, and everyone who is or wants to be in the JHSG's camp is watching and laughing at how stupid the DLUG is to think he would go for her, and at some point she figures it out or someone gleefully tells her she's being duped, and she is hurt and embarrassed and brutally reminded that her place is outside the popular circle and she needs to remember that so she doesn't start getting ideas above her station, basically. And then she goes on with her life with an all-new cynicism and self-loathing which prevents her from trusting anyone's interest in her because a) they're probably just making fun of her and b) she's not good enough for them and c) if she never falls for it then the big awful reveal will never happen, so obviously self-protection requires keeping everyone at a distance forever and feeling like hell about it.


4. God. People are evil. All that hippie bullshit about the innocence of childhood must be perpetuated by people who cannot remember what it was like to be 11. Or maybe that's what the Popular People grow up to think, that it was all rosy and okay. But I kind of have to suspect that if you step on people as hard as you have to to stay in that exalted group, you will eventually become aware of what you are doing.

5. I think I spent last night experiencing the adult version of your vicious Jenny cycle. I found myself out in a group of people consisting of me (quiet, mopey, socially paralyzed) and three people who I really doubt were Popular People as kids but who manage now to be outgoing, sparkly, and confident. We arrived way too early for a long, crowded show and wound up spending most of the night hanging on to our seats at an incredibly busy bar. The sparkly person to my right had conversations with the people waiting, she flirted, she got people to like her, she had fun. The sparkly people at the extreme left and right ends of the group were, by 10:00, both having one-on-one conversations with cute members of their preferred genders whom they had apparently just met. I sat in the middle and fidgeted with my beer and watched the bartenders, and I couldn't figure out how to talk to the strangers around me and I couldn't talk to my friends because they were all busy doing precisely what I wasn't doing. So I got progressively uncomfortably aware of how isolated I was, and the longer I didn't talk to anyone the more I felt like I couldn't, because I hadn't been. Wheee let's talk about me! Actually let's not.

6. #6 was supposed to be about how much I identify with your last paragraph, but since this whole line of thinking is actually kind of making me cry I think I am going to go and make dinner and cookies and get all dolled up for the speakeasy party and probably act the exact same fucking way I always do.

7. Look an elephant!

Posted by: Dianna at December 1, 2007 05:50 PM

1. This is beautifully written.

2. This is weird, because I always thought of you as one of those perennially cool people who has always been cool. Not in a Popular Kid way, but like one of those girls who goes to The City to see shows even in high school and is too adult-cool to be picked on.

Posted by: didofoot at December 2, 2007 08:47 AM

Kris: so did I. That might just be one of those little sister things, where I was automatically convinced that she was the epitome of cool to everyone else just like she was to me. But the crush totally does make sense. Because the kids who have their own kind of adult-alt-cool would obviously not condescend to be attracted to the same boring conceited people that everyone else is attracted to.

Katie: do you remember a book from Mom and Dad's bookshelf called Daphne's Book? The Amazon page has different cover art than the one that we had, which is interfering with my nostalgic recollection, but your description of Jenny makes me think of Daphne. Minus the home situation, I hope.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 11:27 AM

Di: I do remember the mean, awful "Make the DLUG think you like her" game. For awhile it seemed to be the boys' main slumber party activity, sort of like the girls watching scary movies and eating popcorn; they'd call around to DLUGs' houses and fake ask-them-out (or however the 5th grade parlance would have had it) while all the other boys listened in. Need I mention who got me to fall for it? Eliot. I hope he's had both of his legs amputated.

Kris and Di: I was going to say something profound about how interesting it is that people see me differently than I see myself, but that's probably true for everyone to some degree, isn't it? I think my skepticism about mainstream popularity was, to use a retarded metaphor, the little kernel of sand that helped me build up a lovely pearl of independence and coolness at some point. But, so frustratingly, it seems to have translated itself into a false (?) impression of aloofness or disinterest, so that while I have great friends (most with interesting skepticism and "cool" coatings of their own, I suppose), I can't seem to broadcast romantic availability or interest or vulnerability to save my life. Grr.

This is not to say that I wasn't cool by high school, because then I was a Goth. And Goth is way cool.

Di: I barely, barely, vaguely remember that book. But the character that always made me think of Jenny was one of the girls from Annie on my Mind. Do you know what I'm talking about? I'm too lazy to make an Amazon link.

Posted by: katie at December 3, 2007 09:54 AM

...5th grade parlance...

See, in my stupid little weird world this was still happening all the way up to high school. In 9th grade biology class, I recall vividly, courtesy of the unfairly hot boy on whom I had the most painfully long-running crush I can remember ever having. He might, for the record, have been kind of a cool person if he had not chosen for friends the most toxic, shitheaded, inexpressibly cruel and horrible people I have ever met in my life. God. I'm sure they kicked puppies every day.

Goth isn't cool. Goth is too painful and serious and real to be cool. If you don't understand it, don't try to talk about it.

Er. I don't think I do remember that book, no. The title is familiar, but in a "saw it once on a Scholastic book order list" kind of way instead of a "oh yeah I read that" kind of way. Did you hoard it and take it with you to college or something?

Posted by: Dianna at December 3, 2007 10:44 AM

Oh, I think it went on with us through at least junior high, too. I just seem to remember it either starting or snowballing around 4th or 5th grade. Also, I kind of want a larger statistical sample to know if all schools were like this, because all the kids you went to school with were the siblings of the kids I went to school with, and I don't think we can rule out hereditary meanness as a contributing factor.

Also, now that I'm not dashing through the library, I will make a link to the book I was talking about. And now that I'm home and have pulled my own copy off the YA section of my bookshelf (shut up), I give you this description of Annie: "She had very long black hair, and a round face with a small little-kid's nose and a sad-looking mouth -- but it was her eyes I noticed most. They were as black as her hair and they looked as if there was more behind them than another person could possibly ever know."

Also, it seems like I should remember Daphne's Book since I must have been the person who bought it from Scholastic or something, but I don't really and people on Amazon are so restrained with the spoilers that might potentially jog my memory. What was her big secret?

Posted by: katie at December 3, 2007 02:28 PM

"I kind of want a larger statistical sample to know if all schools were like this"

I went to a very small private school in the suburbs of Washington, DC, which mutatis mutandis still sounds very different from the LA schools you attended, EXCEPT that starting exactly in 5th grade the girls were totally ruthless bitches to one another constantly. Reading this post has brought back memories of trauma and tears (I'm not being cutesy, I remember a lot of crying and real, severe screaming).

We had one arch pretty/popular girl, and she had her followers/minions. Within this group of five or so second-tier girls, there was an "out" position, and another position right next to the throne. But the girl occupying either position seemed always to revolve and shift; the girl who started lunch as God's right hand could, by the end of recess, be the outcast, and the former untouchable could find herself ascended in that same hour.

But our pretty/popular girl had a mother who worked at our school, and when things got bad, she would involve her mother (unlike your teacher who cosigned the members-only heater, which is stupid, I recall that our teacher was pretty good at handling these situations, but it made her batshit crazy when popular girl would "disapear," cry in her mother's office, and reappear with her mother. Made me crazy too.

Ugh. I was so happy when I heard about her bar!!!!!

Posted by: DelightfulFormerHousemate at December 3, 2007 02:45 PM

It's not a statistical sampling, but I know San Diegan girls did the same pretend-to-like thing to unpopular boys.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at December 3, 2007 02:48 PM

Aha, a SoCal phenomenon. I'm prepared to believe it, and because I didn't move up to the wonderful Ewok Village of NorCal until college, to think that kids up here are nice and share their sugarfree lunches with each other rather than prank-calling the unpopular kids. Of course, anyone who has to walk past Berkeley High to get to campus or who hangs out at certain cafes in Santa Cruz quickly loses their rosy view of NorCal high-schoolers, but I'm going to try to hang on.

DFH: I love that I knew exactly who you were talking about from the fourth word of your paragraph about [redacted]. I love that I've heard so much about [redacted] that even though I've never met her, I'm glad she failed the bar.

Posted by: katie at December 3, 2007 08:06 PM