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.