One thing I remember from the fifth and sixth grades was my closet. I kept all my "old" stuffed animals in the back, along with my Barbies and crayons. That way, if anyone stopped by, they would only see my perfume and lip glosses - all the stuff that everyone in my middle school owned. But I still locked the door and dragged out the crayons and Barbies when the coast was clear.
I distinctly remember why: I did not want to become Carol. Carol was the girl who openly talked about breast development, brought her ballerina sweatshirt on the field trip, and refused to wear a bra even on Tuesday, assembly day, when we had to wear white blouses. That meant we could easily inventory the girls who wore bras and those who didn't because the straps were visible.
Tween girl world is a treacherous place, with so many rules to follow that it seemed like a new world. Well, it was a new world, and one that I navigated only when I had to. I was glad we lived right by the beach, away from the housing developments where all my "friends" lived. I could still read on Saturdays, walk on the beach and revisit Barbie and her stewardess suit. I didn't have to worry about bras or pretending to like boys.
Carol was bullied. But not in the way boys were bullied: they punched each other in the nose, they shoved and hit. They were sent to the dean and suspended.
We were much more covert. We did something called relational bullying, or social bullying. We isolated Carol. She didn't attend sleepovers or get notes passed to her or go to the mall. When we had to work in groups, we moved our chairs tightly because no one wanted the teacher to say, "Let's see who has room for Carol." No one had room for Carol. No one spoke to her. Eventually, the teacher had her work with boys because we didn't pass the paper to her. I'm not sure how she survived sixth grade.
There is a tremendous amount of attention paid to bullying these days. PTA's are giving workshops on bullying, Dr. Phil is talking about it, and kids are dying, literally, as a result of bullying. There is the Internet now, and myspace which has replaced our passing of notes and "slam books" - stapled together looseleaf in which we wrote anonymous comments about each other. I never wrote in one. I used to move my pen across the top of the page and close it (while everyone watched) Then I passed it on to the next girl. I was terrified of that book, way too terrified to ever actually write in it.
I'm not sure if this type of girl bullying is recognized. It's not as obvious or direct as posting pictures or writing comments in cyberspace. The girl behind most of the bullying of Carol was popular and bright, a highly unlikely suspect. Researchers say that is the way it usually is. The social bullying increases that girl's social status while robbing the victim of any social status.
I used to wonder if the teachers knew what was going on; they seemed oblivious. Placing Carol with the boy group was pretty much the social death knell for Carol.
The problem with this kind of bullying is its subtle nature. It's might be difficult for adults to detect, but it's widespread: most women I talk to either remember or were the class Carol.
I've read about Carols in YA, but these protagonists were isolated in more of a Carrie situation: one of their parents was really, really odd or they did something highly unusual that weirded their classmates out. I don't see much attention being paid to this less visible kind of bullying, and I wonder if that's because you need to be in it, or have gone through it, to recognize it.
Last week, Emma cleaned her closet out (my kids clean their rooms when they are not under direct threat as often as Haley's Comet blazes past) because "Sandy" had worn one of the hoodies that Emma has. She had to go through all her clothes to make sure nothing she had was like "Sandy's" because, you know...she explained. I nodded. Sandy is the class Carol. I asked her what the teachers did to help Sandy. Emma looked at me, "Help her? They don't even know."
So little has changed.