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Ask Auntie Dote
The Auntie Dote for what ails you...

 

From: "Elizabeth"
Date: May 2, 2008

 

Dear Auntie-Dote,

 

I feel so mixed up right now, I don't even know where to start. All I know is that I need impartial advice from someone who has no idea who I am, no previously formed opinions of my character – and no time for niceties. None of these criteria fit for my grandparents, I'm afraid. :P

 

I'm a senior in high school, and for the first half of the year I sat with my friends at lunch everyday. That sounds so normal it makes the entire sentence lame, but it didn't feel so normal to me. Actually, every day I felt more and more that I didn't fit in there. My values were different, my priorities were different, my interests were different – even my clothes and hair looked different. I wasn't comfortable where I was. These people are generally very apathetic. When I say that my values were different than theirs, what I mean is that I had difficulty discerning any values at all sometimes. They were petty and mean. They watched people from across the cafeteria and made unkind comments on these strangers' habits. Personally, maybe it's because I sat with my back to most of the cafeteria, but I didn't really even tend to notice the other people in the cafeteria unless they did something really obnoxious that disrupted my conversations, and I couldn't understand why you would bother to watch a stranger pick their nose or whatever. This didn't apply to everyone at the lunch table, but it did apply to some, and their actions set the tone for the entire table, especially with the one whose behavior I found most intolerable. In case anyone I know actually takes my advice and comes on here, we will call her Terra.

 

Maybe you remember from your own high school experience how "assigned" seats at lunch arise out of habit. Terra and I sat right next to each other, and looking back, I completely fail to understand that one. She made me uncomfortable from the very beginning because she was so… abrasive (most of the habits I mentioned above are hers). Still, she was fun to be around in a bizarre sort of way, when she wasn't being an asshole. The problem was that she was an asshole, and that she and the others tended to single me out sometimes. There was one time when I walked in and for some strange reason, the conversation theme of the day was death. Every sentence was something like, "maybe they'll do this and die." It was all just extraordinarily random, and some of it wasn't even stuff you could really die from. It made me uneasy, but I knew from experience that the best way to get through a lunch period like that with your peace of mind intact is to join in, so I did (which I'm not really proud of – if something makes you uncomfortable, the answer is probably not to join in). Immediately, they turned around and were all like, "Geez, Elizabeth, what is wrong with you?" They were joking and I ignored it to the best of my ability, but I still felt really singled-out. Sometimes I wonder if they see me as an outsider, too, and that's why they did these kinds of things, or if the reason for that particular incident is the fact that I project this "good-girl" image and it's astonishing if I say "damn," much less joke about death. I'm comfortable with my good-girl image, but I don't like being confined by it. It's hard to fit in from a pedestal. Of course, it's awfully self-centered to think my friends might be putting me on a pedestal, but… well… I feel like unless I keep in mind every possibility, I'm never going to understand any of this.

 

Anyway, getting back to Terra, she was really bad about this. She and the others used to take my backpack and hide it on me. Once they took my marching band jacket when I got up to get some eating utensils and hid it inside my backpack. My pencil pouch has been hidden several times. At one point, they were in the habit of putting things like plastic forks and spoons and one time, dozens of salt packets inside of it, for me to discover during my next class. I didn't mind this; it was something to chuckle over as I fished them out during math class or whatever I had next. But this year, with the taking things and hiding them… I always got my stuff back by the end of the period, but I made it clear several times how unhappy I was with this kind of behavior, and it never stopped.

 

Terra had some particular habits that got to me. She would lean in really close to my face and chew exaggeratedly, and then, when I ignored her, make a goat noise at me. She also kept asking me "Is it true?" without ever telling me what she was actually asking. I wasn't dumb enough to answer a question like that – no matter what I said, she would twist it – but she just wouldn't let it go. I forget what else she did, but those two things really got to me. It got to the point where I ended up so angry I had to leave the lunch table almost every day. I wanted to spend time with my friends, but Terra was making life difficult… and it wasn't helping that my other friends were either sitting there and letting her behave this way or actually joining in. I mean, I wasn't the only person she asked if it was true, but I feel like she was more persistent with me than anyone else. I was the only one she chewed at, but that's probably just because I was the only one dumb or unfortunate enough to sit next to her. My other friends who were there didn't even understand why I was angry. They were afraid of my anger. They actually shrank away, even though I do not actually hurt people when I'm angry.

 

I didn't know what to do. At the time, I didn't have anyone else to sit with, and sitting alone is just asking for trouble in high school (or, as I later discovered, well-meaning but irritating "charity workers" who come to keep you company without realizing they're actually just keeping you from whatever else you wanted to do that period). My boundaries were violated, my feelings going unnoticed, my rights unrecognized, by the very people I had been hanging out with for years. I was starting to realize I'd made a mistake when I decided on this crowd to hang with, but I go to a small high school where it can be extremely difficult to make new friends once you've established what group you hang with.

 

It was just after winter break that the shit hit the fan. Terra had been asking me if I had anger issues for a couple of days, which frankly made me angry. I know that didn't help my case, but, well… I believed I had a right to be angry. I still don't know if I did. Some of the pranks they pulled they only did to me, but some of it was shit they did to each other all the time (like the "is it true?" thing). Was it silly or self-centered or whatever to feel singled out? I still can't tell if they did stuff to me in the same proportions they did it to each other. *sigh* Well, anyway, the friend who always diffused the tension between us wasn't there the day she asked me if I enjoyed being angry. And of course, this made me angry again. I'm not so good at staying calm, huh? So that was the day I finally told her that she pissed me off, and told her why. I forget what exactly I said, but I do remember that when she asked me why I kept coming back, my response was this: "Because some of the people at this table are my friends!"

 

"Um… what just happened?" one of my friends asked, when we finally fell silent. She had been trying to dissolve the tension between us throughout the entire conversation, to no avail.

 

"I just decided that maybe [Terra] is right and there's no point in sitting here anymore," I said. I finished eating my lunch and left. I haven't been back since, except on days when Terra was absent and my other friends asked me to sit with them.

 

A couple weeks later, my oldest brother died in a helicopter wreck. His funeral was a week later. Two days after that, I logged onto Myspace and found a comment from Terra on one of my older blog entries. Actually, it was from the day the shit hit the fan (as I always refer to that day in my head). I didn't give details about anything that happened, but it had been a horrible day and I complained about it in vague terms for a paragraph or two. She said a lot of mean things, told me it was all my fault, called me a "self-righteous, drama-filled [sic] bitch," and told me that she wasn't the only one who thought that way about me. It was about a paragraph long. I don't remember everything, and I wound up deleting it fairly soon.

 

Okay, I don't mind being called a bitch. Being told she wasn't alone stung, but I could've dismissed it eventually as either a lie or irrelevant, since I didn't talk to my old friends much anyway. But… two days after my brother's funeral? There's no way she wasn't aware of it, either; my blog was pretty well updated on what was going on. My defenses were down, and as a result, what she said hurt like hell. I guess I naively assumed death in family=time-out on the petty high school nonsense. It really hurts me to think that someone would go out of their way to hurt me at a time like that, which I know just gives them the victory, but it's true nonetheless. I don't mean to whine, and please forgive me if I am whining, but… how could anyone be so cruel? If even my worst enemy had a death in the family, I would offer condolences and leave them the hell alone for a while. I can't decide if she just started reading back-entries on my blog, got angry at that one, and forgot herself, or if she's just really that mean, but I haven't forgiven her, even over three months afterward. She has started approaching me again lately. Doesn't really say anything – just sits near me in a free or in the library, or says "hi" as we pass in the hallway. But it unnerves me. I try to just treat her the same as I would treat anyone else – return the greetings, ignore when appropriate – but more and more I'm finding that I just can't. I can't pretend that nothing happened because something did, and it hurt me, and even though I keep hoping I can forgive her, I realize every time that I can't.

 

But see, here's the thing that gets me: I know they miss me. I discovered through all this that I had more friends outside that group than I thought, and I've been getting along okay – it's even easier in some ways, not having to pretend I give a shit when they start talking about Halo 3 – but I feel guilty sometimes, looking across the room at them in Music Theory. I could sit with them in Music Theory. Terra's not in that class. I even do sometimes, but we never seem to end up actually talking about anything interesting. My friend Maria usually sits on the other side of me from them, and we end up chatting for the entire period about things that actually interest me. So I want to give up, but then I look across the cafeteria at lunch and notice that "my" seat is still empty. I don't get that actually. Why would they think I'd still want to sit next to her? But I feel guilty for abandoning them, because you're not just supposed to drop your friends for another clique (or… well… single friend).

 

So I'm a mess. I'm going to be a worse mess tomorrow b/c it's 1 AM as I write this, but I need to get it all down. I don't know what to do or think. Maybe I do have anger issues. I don't think getting mad at Terra had much to do with them, but maybe I do have them. I don't think I really get angry that often these days, unless I'm exhausted or having a rough time or the issue has been bothering me for a while, but I used to get angry all the time in middle school (or course, I was exhausted and having a rough time). Maybe it still happens more than I think it does. Maybe I am self-righteous. I try to be open-minded and live and let live and all that, but I do have a strong set of moral values I live by. Where is the line? And I have been called overdramatic in the past and maybe I am, but the fact is, I don't act any more intense than I feel. I'm working on acting less intense because I realize that emotions must be kept in check in our world, but I don't want to be dishonest about how I feel.

 

Ugh. Damnit, I need sleep. Bring on the Heartless advice.

 

-E

Elizabeth,

Auntie Dote and I both read your story with some interest and concern. Our combined reply is long, because school-yard bullying is a really tough cookie to deal with. If you were being physically threatened, or showed signs of suicidal depression, I'd be saying, "Get a parent or teacher involved, NOW." But I don't get that reading from your letter.

Hopefully this response will give you some things to consider.

Your story reminds me of a similar experience I went through in Jr. High.

The school was highly "cliquey". I had the unfortunate disadvantage of having a very socially inept older brother pass that way before me, thereby branding me by my last name as forever in the "out" circles. That, and being a smart girl meant that I would likely never fit in. It wasn't easy, but at some point early on in grade 8, I met a girl through my parents (it seems they were old highschool friends or something), and she was part of the "In" crowd. In part because her parents had money, and in part because she developed breasts early, and was attractive. At age 13, she had already had several boyfriends. I had never even so much as kissed a boy. She befriended me and I joined their "group"... for a while. But like you Elizabeth, I was a bit of a "goody-goody", not because of anything more than a principle of not wanting to follow the herd. Some steadfastly independent part of me that wanted to be my own person. They smoked. I was supposed to go out on the trails (off school property) at lunch and smoke too. My mother smoked. I had no intention of starting. It was gross. I steadfastly refused to do things that they wanted me to do "just to fit in". I also couldn't afford the kind of clothes they wore. They repeatedly made fun of that, and numerous other things, like the fact that I wouldn't shoplift. But I wasn't the only target of ridicule. I realized that this lead girl did it to EVERYONE in the group at some point or another. One day she was sweet and nice and the next day she was laughing at you in front of everyone and you were just supposed to laugh it off too.

And here's the thing I started to realize - you see, I grew up on a farm, so perhaps that gave me some insights - there IS a "pecking order" in these social groups - and that term exists for a reason. The alpha hen PECKS at the subordinates to establish dominance. I got sick and tired of her making fun of me (and everyone else in the group at one time or another) just to make herself look and feel better. The others took it and sucked it up because they all wanted to be part of the group. I got tired of it and realized, I didn't need friends like THAT, because in reality, they weren't truly "friends". I valued myself too highly to sit around and let anyone insult or make fun of me. Oh, they tried to couch the behavior in the whole "Can't you take a joke?" thing - because they think that's their "out" if they get called out on it. But it's abuse just the same. Fortunately, I had my mother to talk about it, and she always taught me to believe in myself and to not accept anything less than respect and reasonable treatment. She validated that the behavior was horrible and encouraged me to stand up for myself and do what I felt was right. It was hard, but I finally told them I didn't need the kind of "friendship" they offered, and walked away. Of course there were jeers and derision, but at that point I really didn't care. I mean, what feels worse? Hanging around people who are constantly putting you down and being cruel to others and feeling worse and worse about yourself, or breaking clear of that and steering your own course, living to your own moral code and standards? Yeah, they may try to put you down, but as Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

Instead of eating in the lunch room, I ate other places, read in the library, wandered the halls, participated in lunch-time intramural activities - anything to be anywhere they were NOT. I could hold my own verbally, and I did, eventually, but I found it was just easier to be somewhere else and not get sucked into the miasma of highschool drama that surrounded this group.

Eventually I met other people, and we formed our own social group - not one of the "in" groups, but it was people to hang with that shared my values and interests, and didn't need to be abusive to others in order to feel good about themselves. Admittedly, most of those people didn't go to my highschool, but that didn't really matter. I had school to focus on during the day, and other friends to go out with on weekends.

Now once you get to your Senior year, in a small school, that may be impossible to do within the context of the school. Given my experiences, I don't think that getting adults to step in and intervene to try and make them behave is the answer here. I suspect that trying to get an adult authority to step in and "make things right", would only make matters worse and at some level, disempower you. Don't get me wrong, you absolutely *should* talk to an adult about this, but only in the context of helping you to figure out your own feelings and how YOU can cope with the situation and your feelings better.

Elizabeth, given the death of your brother, I think it's vitally important to find an adult or counsellor you can trust to talk about this situation. You need someone who will just LISTEN, and let you talk it out - not give advice per se, other than to validate that you aren't being unreasonable, and that your "friends" ARE being dumbasses (which they are). Intelligent people (like you) think about things. They get passionate about what they believe in. There are lots of things to be angry about in this world, and I have no doubt that some if not all of your anger is justified. The key is channelling it into some kind of positive action, rather than letting it eat away at you.

You are smart. I can tell by what you wrote and the way you look at yourself, that you've got it mostly figured out. You left the table and didn't go back when you realized that the abuse wasn't going to stop. That took more courage and strength than most people have. You felt guilt at participating in what you knew didn't match with your own values. You weren't abandoning friends. You were setting REASONABLE boundaries and removing yourself from a toxic situation. You just may need to look elsewhere for friends, and that won't be easy in the short term.

This Terra girl is an asshole through and through - but all through your life, you are going to meet "Terras". If you can learn how to pull yourself through this one without letting Terra get to you and get you down, then you've learned a valuable lesson for later.

Terra is a bully. You need to come to the realization that there's no point in obsessing about Terra's motivations. Terra doesn't deserve that energy. You need to realize that YOU do not need to give Terra the attention she doesn't deserve, either publicly or privately by continuing to be hurt by her actions. You are obviously smart, self-aware and probably light-years beyond your current peers. Believe in yourself. There ARE people out there for you to connect with, but you are not likely to find them in highschool.

You have a right to be angry - it's completely justified, and Terra's just trying to belittle you and shut you down any way she can, because that's what bullies do. But that doesn't mean you have to accept or get hurt by what Terra says. It's time to to stop letting Terra fuck with your head. Bravo that you have the maturity and self-awareness to do the introspection, to say "Was I really like that?", and check-in to see if you were being unreasonable. It shows you aren't narcissistic or totally self-absorbed. But now it's time to realize that YOU aren't the problem, and emotionally distance yourself from a toxic group. You may follow Auntie Dote's advice (a little further down), and while some of the other girls in the group might come 'round, I have little hope that Terra will. Then again, I could be wrong. You'll have to decide for yourself what feels like the best course of action.

Yeah it sucks that people you counted on ended up being mindless sheep (I've experienced that a couple of times my life too). It hurts to feel abandoned by people you thought were friends, so you find a good, solid shoulder, have a good cry (it helps), and then you move on. It's hard to see when you are 17, but it DOES pass.

I honestly have nobody from highschool that I still stay in touch with, and no desire to go back to my HS reunions. It wasn't till college - when I met people who truly had similar interests and intellect, that I started to really connect with people that I could form long-term friendships with. The internet affords even more opportunity now to escape the bounds of geography and connect with communities of people who share your values, interests and passions.

Perhaps it's time to stop looking to the "friends" who really aren't friends at all, and stop longing for a place at a table that really is not suited to you, both intellectually and morally.

-Natalie

Auntie Dote suggests:

For your own peace of mind, and IF there is something to save there, you might want to see if you can get a counselor or a teacher you trust to call the entire clique in to a moderated group setting where you can tell all of them how their behavior affected you. It is vitally important that the counsellor act ONLY as a moderator/mediator, and is seen to be impartial. If you are going to do this, I suggest you write down what you want to say ahead of time, even rehearse it, to make sure your thoughts are clear when you confront them.

There may tears and apologies, if there is any friendship to be salvaged there, and hopefully there will be reconciliation. Maybe those girls can learn some maturity from it. And you might grow a size or two in your own boots, as it takes courage to take that kind of confrontation to another level. That's the acid test, will this relationship continue to hold water, is there any "there" there? You are all in music theory and they leave your seat vacant which suggests to me there might be some residual basis for friendship and semi-intelligent common interests that may lead to some kind of reconciliation.

I want to reinforce what Natalie said, that bullies ALWAYS go for the smart ones. You'll likely be light years ahead of Terra and the others for the rest of your LIFE. You are extremely well-spoken for your age, maybe some day you'll be a writer.

And on that note, here's another suggestion: write a short story or an essay on the subject. You are a great writer and can empower others with your story. Keep discovering your power and your voice; that's going to be the thing that matters, a year from now and five and fifteen years from now. Everything negative that happens can lead to SOME positive action on our part.

Any nuisance ***that rattles you out of complacency*** and calls you to action, you will say a blessing for someday when you relish the results of your own independence and self-determination. I rented an apartment for many years that was cheap, beautiful and ideally located, but my neighbor was a heavy smoker. I finally realized I didn't want to live another 20 years of my life breathing her second-hand smoke. I also realized, I had the means to live independently and wasn't taking advantage of it. So, instead of channeling my feelings into hostility toward my neighbor, I bought my own house. I got rid of the carcinogens, and the hostility (that stuff will kill you as sure as second-hand smoke!). I enjoy the rewards of that decision every day. And some part of me says a blessing for my neighbor, because that small grain of negativity spurred me to change my life for the better.

Whatever happens, good luck and we're behind you. We think you have the power to make a positive impact on those around you, as you have already demonstrated the ability to make positive changes for yourself.

-A.D.


Copyright© "Auntie Dote" & Heartless Bitches International (heartless-bitches.com) 2008
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