Sweathogs, Heathers & Mean Girls

Conventional patriarchal wisdom does not necessarily think about young women who are coming of age developing a “thick skin” to help them navigate the slings and arrows of life. Women are supposed instead to be soft, receptive and relational rather than “tough bitches”. But our daughter Emma learned to toughen up to survive a gauntlet of challenging female classmates, and that thicker skin facilitated her overcoming her shyness. Her experience recalled for me the cliques of girls in the movies “Mean Girls” and “Heathers”, and the very tough class of students known as the “Sweathogs” in the “Welcome Back Kotter” situation comedy of the late 1970s. When I discussed it with Emma recently, she said it was definitely the low point in a life that she has generally found blessed and wonderful.

Starting in the fall of 2000, Emma attended a small school for her three middle school years (see my piece on “Alternative Charter School”). Emma was one of some twenty kids that were part of the inaugural sixth grade class, the biggest fish in this small pond. Since there was only one class per grade level, this group was basically together for three years.

Emma’s class got off to a very rough start. The roster of students was chocked full of kids with rebellious instincts (including this clique of four or five girls) stoked by years of tight external behavior control in their previous schools. The dynamic of this group was a sort of perfect storm that (to mix metaphors) ate teachers for breakfast. And in fact, their initial teacher did not last the first semester, and their second only until about spring break. Finally the program director, an immensely talented and skilled teacher himself, ended up filling the void leading the class for the remainder of the second semester of Emma’s sixth-grade class.

Amidst the rest of the cast of characters in this class, the members of this clique of five girls was reminiscent of the 1988 Winona Rider and Christian Slater movie “Heathers”) were the cool kids and “alpha dogs” that the other girls in class looked up to and the boys (with their own burgeoning hormones) were fixated on. The classroom dynamic was such a sideshow that it was often a much more compelling “curriculum” than the academic lesson plans.

Two of the girls in the clique were longtime friends of Emma from her pre-school and early elementary years. One of those two was particularly gregarious and athletic, had been Emma’s best friend during those earlier years, and knew in great detail what made Emma tick and how to push her buttons. They still accepted Emma as a peer, but were not academically focused like she was, and they harassed her endlessly about being such a good student.

Adding to the scope of this whole thing all the clique girls would invite Emma over to their houses on weekends, for overnights, and for birthday parties. This was her social circle, so she generally accepted, yet continued to suffer their slings and arrows even beyond the classroom.

Emma was a shy and sensitive kid, and acutely concerned about what others thought of her, including her teachers and her classmates. She hated being in the spotlight if she was not at her absolute best. She also had a strong sense of what was fair and just (particularly so because she had grown up with an older brother who she was always concerned was getting, and getting away with, more than she was).

In talking to her recently, she said that there were days when being subject to those girls’ cruel, petty games made her miserable, because she felt she could never win.
She would find herself in the difficult position of wanting to continue to be accepted as a peer by the clique members, yet demonstrate to the teacher (to the clique’s disdain) her academic acumen. She would suffer their scorn when she got all the questions right, and their incessant teasing when she got a question wrong. She walked a tightrope of being rebellious enough against authority to keep the respect of the clique while doing well in her school work and being acknowledged by her teacher in that regard.

Emma would come home from school and share with us stories of how they would find stupid reasons to hate and ostracize each other temporarily, and then drag Emma into the middle of their battles and force her to take sides. Emma (with her sense of caring and fair play) would stick up for the outcast. But her support would usually go unacknowledged, and instead the outcast member would only be concerned about regaining the graces of the rest of the clique, even at Emma’s expense.

Sometimes when listening to her frustrated unburdening of harrowing tales I recalled my own difficult middle-school years trying to hang on to a cadre of so-called friends so I would not feel like a complete outcast and loser (see my piece on “Staying Home”). These were friends of the ilk from the phrase, “With friends like this, who needs enemies”.

Her mom and I tried to be good listeners, which I have found is maybe the most important gift an adult (parent or otherwise) can give to a youth. Yes we would suggest that she stick to her guns, be assertive and use “I” statements. But we acknowledged that we did not have the answers to her thorny problems, only stories from our own youth, and our basic suggestions. There was a shared understanding that this was her life, her issue, and that it could eventually be worked out.

And she did work it out. By the second year, she had seen all their manipulative tricks repeatedly, and she was learning not to accept anything they said on face value. By their last year together, she was figuring out that it was all their stuff, their issues, and really had little to do with who she was. She was just their most convenient soft target, because she (for lack of another option) was making the effort to be their friend.

After three years the “Sweathogs” culminated and moved on (I suspect to the great relief of the school staff) and scattered to various high schools. Once Emma did have the option of different circles of peers and friends, she did not make much of an effort to maintain friendships with any of the girls, though she was invited to and attended one or two of their later birthday parties.

When I emailed her an initial draft of this piece, Emma reviewed it and shared a lot more of her feelings from that time than I knew before (and which I’ve included above), since it is now water well under the bridge. I was particularly struck by these words in her email…

I was a sensitive kid, who wanted to please everyone and wanted to be accepted, sometimes beyond any sort of moral code I had developed. I navigated as best I could, and it certainly helped that I had you two [her mom and I] to vent to at the end of the day.

Her former middle school classmates organized an informal reunion recently, which she attended. About half the class was there, including her two main friends from the clique, and Emma observed that…

It felt just like middle school, with the addition of cheap booze and the fact that I was [now] witty, confident, and wise to all their silly games. They really hadn’t changed, with the exception of changes forced on them (having to get jobs, go to school, etc) and all of those things I so resented them for never came up, as if they weren’t important. In fact they giggled the whole time and were happy to include me.

From her perspective now seven years after middle school, Emma realized that the things they did that used to agonize her in the classroom (that they still were doing now) were learned behaviors that they had still not grown out of. It became clear to her once again that it was not about her, it was all about them.

From my vantage point as her parent, finding and navigating by her inner compass has been a particular challenge for Emma, learning to substitute her own for others’ expectations. But now at age twenty, she seems to have figured it out pretty well. She is tough and cerebral, not a “sweetheart” (at least in my opinion) but still with that strong sense of fairness and caring for others. Whenever I see her now she is poised, in control and looks her best (with her unique look, though reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn). She lives her life with intention, finding good jobs to make a living, pursuing her many interests and aptitudes, and building circles of friends now that are supportive of who she is.

She has become a person who is uniquely her self, which is about the best compliment I can give to anybody. But I’m biased of course.

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