Monday, July 21, 2008

In grade 8 a friendship had developed between one of the most attractive and intelligent girls in class and another girl, who was quite introverted and thus selective about her friends. I remember her as an ever smiling and unassumingly intelligent girl. This friendship was a very close and loving one. They would do everything together and most of us were indifferent to it, We hardly gave it a thought, initially.

The fact of their friendship must have festered in AN’s mind for a long time.She had always nursed a feeling of awe mixed with jealousy for this intelligent and attractive girl. One day, she could take it no longer. Gathering her group around her she said that there was something very abnormal about their friendship. It was just not right. She then spoke about homosexuality, a word that only a few knew the meaning of in that conservative school. Those who knew the meaning gasped as if a new understanding of this friendship had come to light. Those who were told the meaning(also the very orthodox girls) labeled these girls with the one word that was the ultimate in our lingo to describe a fallen person “Sooo shameless!!!!”, saying it out aloud, after making a dramatic gasping sound and covering their mouths.

AN succeeded in making the others alienate these girls. They would get strange looks, no one would talk to them after school or before. They were spoken about in barely concealed whispers. Many dirty, holier than thou looks were shot at them.

The effect was tragic. These two girls, with no one else to talk to, remained even closer together. They rejected and attempt made to talk to them by the few who would ignore AN’s dictates. This made them lose out on possible allies as well. They became like Siamese twins. On many occasions we would see them crying together and none of us dared to approach them. It was as if they had created a protective psychic shield around them that no one could penetrate. They ate little, sometimes not eating at all or eating just one meal in a day. We saw them get thinner. We saw them put on a brave front but break emotionally. No one , none of us did anything to help them.

Thankfully summer holidays are the best drug of forgetfulness and in the new term the friendhsip had ended and they related to each other as they would to anyone else.No one brought up the incidents of the previous academic year. Maybe, because of us a friendhsip had ended but I think, in the circumstances, it was better it did.
Rachel Simmion's Odd Girl Out made me think back to my school days. Was I a mean girl in then? Memories of my life in a boarding school are becoming vague and distant and all I get are a few glimpses. Things that stood out, the things we did so that we would fit into the Enid Blyton ideal of boarding school life are clearly remembered. They still feel like triumphs against authority. Things like smuggling tuck in on parent meeting day (Sunday), keeping awake till late telling each other stories, making elaborate escape plans, daring to raid the school fridge and then snigger when another grade was blamed and endless such things that to us were a very big deal.

But was I a mean girl? Did I target and victimise the more quiet and demure girls? Did I laugh at someone’s clothes? Did I move in a clique?
Did I join in the general bitch sessions when groups of girls would identify and wholeheartedly make life miserable for some girl for the rest of the academic year?

One memory regretfully stands out. I was sitting under a tree with another girl and we were taking about goodness knows what. I must have been in grade 7. We had just finished a match of throw ball and were resting. Another classmate came in and wanted to be a part of the conversation.
So she asked us what we were taking about and for no reason whatsoever I said that we were speaking in code and only smart people could understand the code.(We had just been introduced to chemical symbols and for some reason i said CuSO4 was code for common sense). Then just for the kicks I got I rattled off code that was meaningless even for me. She looked at us sadly, angrily and she walked away. As I watched her, I felt very bad about what I had done but was too proud to apologise. My compensation for what I did was never to bring up the code again.

However, meanness was very much a part of school life. When you are in a boarding school, you are with your peer group all the time. Before, during and after school. If someone decides to make you their target for harassment, there is nothing much to look forward to except to accept being emotionally battered all day long and then find it being repeated in the evening and at night.

Right from the time I joined this school in grade 5, I found that there were many girls, who individually or as a group would target one or two girls every term, every year.

What these girls did to others is difficult to define. The cruelty was often very subtle and smiled at its victims through a sisterhood of love and friendship that girls in boarding schools seek.

AN had in grade 5 declared herself the boss of the class and had around her a group of girls who could either be slaves of who looked good to have around her. Among the latter were the well read ones, the smart ones, the pretty ones, she had an eye for the pretty ones. Thrown in among the slaves and the decorations were the executors of her endless schemes. Girls who could say mean things to the targeted girl. Girls who could mobilise support to isolate someone, Though two other girls competed for Boss status in grades 6 and 7, it was AN's constant presence that worked with, played with and snuffed out the socio-emotional lives of may girls right till grade 12.

AN made HD into her personal servant. HD had to wash her clothes, make her shelf ( a space we got to store our things, we had no lockers or cupboards), comb her hair and many other such things. In exchange HD got to be AN's pet. HD would make her sit next to her and then very affectionately begin to peel away her self esteem bit by slow bit. “Oh, HD is so good at cleaning, she will grow up to be an excellent servant!" She would say, and then smile at HD, eyes brimful with simulated love. AN decided that she was the charismatic mentor to HD and would tell her, train her to think the way she herself thought and became her knight and protector against real and imagined bitching from other girls. Naturally, mot of the bitching could be traced back to AN herself.

In the school where I teach, I know of a case where a girl had to leave school because of the kind of torment and isolation she experienced because the ‘it gang’ in her class succeeded in turning the entire class against her. My students told me that if they were seen talking to her, they would also be ostracized.

The emotional damage of this kind of female aggression is more or less permanent. In any case the experiences are not forgotten. I remember perfectly well many instances where I, my friends and other girls in my peer group were targets. The harassment often subtle though many times direct lasts months, even years. Once a target, it becomes almost a game. The victim expects to be harassed because at least then she can exist on the fringes of the all important sisterhood.