That’s okay, I say automatically. Then I hear my 15-year-old ask her sister, Are those the girls?
What girls? I ask.
My daughter stares straight ahead, her face as red as her hair. She struggles not to cry. No one, she says. Nothing.
We sit down on a bench between the face-painting booth and the corn-on-the-cob booth. I send my other children off for snow cones. The story that she finally tells horrifies me. She speaks haltingly, in phrases and gulps, in fear and shame. When she is done, the mama lion in me wants to track that girlI’ll call her Berthathrough the park, scratch her eyes out and eat her gizzard. But I am the mother, so I try to be wise.
This is my daughter’s first year at the junior high school. In our town four elementary schools feed into one junior high, and there the real education begins.
Bertha is not the girl’s real name. It’s one of the small ways I am being mean back, as this trendy girl would hate to be called Bertha. Bertha is cool at school. Her clothes are it, her crowd is tough, and she and her sister have the run of the streets after school, the daughters of allegedly pot-smoking, self-absorbed parents. They are girls in crisis. They are girls I would normally feel sympathy for, whom I would try to reach. But Bertha, by targeting my daughter, has made me feel anything but charitable.
From the first day of school, at every break, Bertha and her best palI’ll call her Prunillahave followed my daughter, harassing her, taunting her, threatening her, shoving her around, so that eventually my daughter was afraid to leave when a class was over. She even asked one teacher if she could eat her lunch in the classroom, rather than face Bertha and Prunilla. (Don’t they eat? I asked her. They munch as they go on the hunt was her response.) They knew my daughter’s schedule, so one of them always waited outside of every class she had. They made fun of her favorite jeans: Don’t you have any other clothes? Don’t you ever change those pants? They called her names: Bitch! Goody-goody! They told her they were going to beat her silly one day and that her father, an elementary school teacher, could not protect her now that she was on junior high turf.
Basically, my daughter is being stalked.
And now these girls, 12-year-olds with adult arsenals of insults and scare tactics, are barreling into her in the park, in full view of her clueless mother, who pleasantly forgives them.
It saddens me to know that this has been going on for two weeks and that I have been oblivious to my daughter’s pain. I knew she wasn’t thrilled with junior high, but I assumed it was because of the transition to a system of many classes and teachers, and more homework. I am glad that she confided in her older sister, and I am relieved to see her now unburdened of this terror. But I steam in secret, and wonder anew if I am teaching my four daughters the right things.
I try to teach them to seek peace, to work for justice. But I also don’t want any one of them to be the perpetual steamrollered victim, the archetypal Coyote in a world of Roadrunners. I want my daughters to be able to stand up for themselves, and yet I want them to be forgiving. Then in the present situationthere is the hopping mad gnome within me that wants my daughter to WIN! That wants her to crush the spirit out of them! And of course, the pacing mama lion in my heart wants to wipe them out for her. To protect her at all cost.
I visit the vice principal the next day, although my daughter has begged me not to. She fears retribution if it gets around that she ratted, as it were, getting the girls in trouble. The vice principal calls my daughter out of class, careful to advertise the pretext of adjusting her schedule. She tells him the whole story, at my insistence. He does not seem a bit surprised. But when I tell him I plan to call the girls’ parents, he dissuades me.
Let me try handling it, he says. He wants to observe for a few days, to catch Bertha and Prunilla red-handed. He interrogates my daughter about whether she starts any of the confrontations, which causes her eyes to tear in indignation. He is starting to grate on me. Then he agrees with my daughter that her anonymity is important, for her safety. He treads cautiously in bad-girl territory.
Besides, he says, you’d be lucky to find a parent home when you call.
Apparently, as long as no rules or bones are broken, he is powerless. The behavior of these girls, while unkind and reprehensible, is now considered normal for their age. It’s an unfortunate reality that such girls run the streets, stalk each other, physically attack one another, all without consequence.
A member of the school board tells me that expulsions from school for fighting used to be an exclusively male thing. That girls had little tiffs and cat fights, but boys spilled blood and broke bones. Now, however, many girls come before the school board for disciplinary or expulsion hearings. And while the boys continue to hang their heads before the board and mumble their apologiesIt won’t happen again, sirin meek voices as they accept their punishment, the girls, he says, are a different matter. They stand before the board with eye make-up blazing and bra straps showing, with unrepentant posture, as though asking, You want a piece of me? The charges against them are for actions every bit as violent and destructive as the boys’ wrongdoings. But they are unresponsive and unfazed by any restitution they must perform. Says the school board member, the girls are tough, and they’re scary.
And they are after my daughter. She fears they will graduate to weapons. She has asked me about the Federal Witness Protection Program. While her request made me smile behind my hand, it also broke my heart. She was not joking.
It’ll blow over, another mother reassures me. They’ll get bored. You know why they want to take her down, she says confidentially. Because she’s so pretty.
I admit of coursewithout impartiality herethat my daughter is very beautiful, but this thinking distresses me even more. The pack mentality has gone too far. Is my daughter simply to put up with eating her lunch in new safe corners, and evading stalkers on a daily basis, as the Salman Rushdie of the junior high? Can no one control the out-of-control girls?
My husband and I weigh our options. Homeschooling? Karate lessons for all our daughters? Lawsuits? Our wants are simple: a safe and supportive environment for our daughter to further her education. But then we realize we want more: we want safe and supportive homes and schools for all girls. And all boys. Suddenly the world is not so simple.
In this instance the vice principal is right: He is ever-present for a few days, and the game loses its attraction. There is no sport in serving detention. Bertha and Prunilla gradually wipe my daughter’s presence from the face of their earth, and probably seek fresh blood and terror. My daughter is free to go about her business at the junior high. But I wonder: what will her adult life be like? Because I fear that my generation is not leaving hers a world that is a better place. Instead we have given them aggression and violence, and we have deep-sixed gentleness and kindness on everyone’s part. We don’t even require basic decency or manners anymorefrom anyone.
In spite of our early devotion to Crosby, Stills and Nash, we are not teaching our children well.