Last week I read a fascinating article in the Washington Post about mean girls — you know, those schoolyard queen bees who delight in belittling, ostracizing and otherwise tormenting their fellow classmates. You can read the full article and discussion here, but the gist of the story is this: Real Housewives and Hollywood drama notwithstanding, most “mean girls” eventually grow up to be… well, actual (non-mean) grown-ups. Call it a case of developing empathy. Call it a case of being left in the dust when others do, recent studies suggest the end result is the same — bullies eventually outgrow bullying.
I found this research particularly interesting because as middle-grade writers (and fellow middle school survivors), we all know the playground can be one of the most treacherous places on the planet, heck, maybe even the universe. In fact, if Earth is ever invaded by alien forces, forget the army — just send a cadre of lip-gloss wearing, cellphone-wielding 12-year-olds to point out that a green glow, single giant eyeball and shiny space suits are soooo last year. Embarrass those little green men right back to their home planet.
All kidding aside, there’s good reason the “mean girl” (or boy) remains a popular character in middle-grade fiction. They’re real. Kids have to deal with them. Think nasty Wendy in Judy Blume’s classic, Blubber. Or Nan Marino’s hurting Tamara in Neil Armstrong is My Uncle. Almost every kid has encountered (or maybe even been) one of these characters at some point. And what better way to open an honest discussion about bullying — and remind kids that yes, this too shall pass — than with a book.
This got me to thinking… just what would become of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) literary mean girls if they were to leap off the page and actually “grow up”? Would Tammy become a space shuttle pilot? Would Wendy someday gain thirty pounds and apologize to Linda at their 10-year high school reunion? Do mean girls really change?
Looking back at my own childhood, I have to say, for the most part — yes. I still vividly remember the girl who tormented another middle school classmate for — no joke — wearing a plaid jacket to school. Then, there were the queen bees that got my sixth-grade class (and best friend) to shun me for an entire week (aka, eternity), simply because I failed to send them postcards on a daily basis from my spring vacation in Myrtle Beach. And of course, there was the poor soul whose underpants were flown up the flagpole (really) at summer camp.
Still, by the time high school rolled around, the plaid-jacket tormentor had faded into obscurity, the sixth-grade queen bees had gone their separate ways and no longer ruled the cafeteria. We outgrew summer camp. In fact, by the time we all graduated and headed into the real world, I don’t really remember any one group going after another anymore. And once our 20-year reunion came around, everyone was pretty much on even footing — jobs, kids, marriages, divorces, deaths and births, sorrows and joys. There was no one in the corner being ridiculed for wearing a plaid dress to the Knight’s of Columbus grand lodge that night. We all danced liked idiots, swapped stories, had a little too much wine and wondered where the time had gone. There wasn’t a bully in sight.
So, what do you think? What happens when “mean girls” grow up? Do they? If you could predict a future for your favorite literary meanie, what would it be? Go ahead, be creative. And while you’re at it — if you could go back in time and tell your middle-grade self how different things will be just a few years down the road, what would you say? Please, share with me in the comments below!
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