Several years ago, my family moved from Nashville, Tenn., to Dallas, Texas. I went to a new school and was exposed, for the first time, to a group of truly mean girls. Sound like a movie you’ve seen? Yeah, the beginning of my story is pretty similar to the beginning of Mean Girls. The biggest difference, besides the fact that Tina Fey was never my teacher, is that movie took place in a high school, and my first experience with mean girls came when I was in fourth grade.
There were four of them. On my first day at the new school, the ringleader of the group gave me an ultimatum: if you want to be cool here, stick with us, if not, you can hang out with those geeky nice girls, but don’t expect to have a good time in this school.
Yes, she said that almost word for word. And yes, I did say I was nine years old.
I left her offer on the table, not finding the promise of “cool” very glamorous. I knew better. I knew those girls were trouble.
And they were. They wanted to stay true to their word and make sure I had a bad time at the school since I wasn’t part of their group. They told me I was weird, that I was an alien, that I should move back to Tennessee, that my hair always looked bad, that no smart girl was ever going to want to be friends with me. They asked me not to blow my nose, because it was gross. One of the girls called me ignorant (by ignorant, I think she meant stupid. When I pointed out that her misuse of the word proved her own ignorance, she just got confused).
All of that happened within the first two weeks. I’d had enough. But I will never forget what happened next. During class one day, one of the girls, whose desk happened to be next to mine, reached over, took my paper and scribbled all over it with her pencil. Calmly, I took the paper back and took great pains in erasing every single stray mark. The next time she looked at me, I held the paper up to her face and swiftly blew all the eraser shavings into her eyes.
The teacher saw how those girls had treated me, so after eraser-shaving girl got back from the nurse’s office, she was the one who got in trouble and I was off scott free. I was moved to another (better) class, and those girls learned to back off. In my little fourth grade mind, I had won.
But as I grew up, I realized something. Even though those girls were from my past, they followed me everywhere. They had different names and hair colors, but they were there. I recognized their spirit.
They followed me to junior high and two different high schools. They shot me dirty looks in my senior English class. They went to youth group with me. They got accepted into the same small, private college I did. Even now that I’m in the “real world,” I still come in contact with mean girls. They are always different. Sometimes smart, sometimes D-U-M dumb. Sometimes they’re pretty and sometimes they’re … just mean. They all have different reasons, different backgrounds, different stories and different methods to their meanness. But they haven’t really changed. They say the same things, use the same tactics, and have the same level of maturity as they did in fourth grade.
And until recently, so did I.
Throughout the years, when a mean girl would scribble on my proverbial paper, I would be calm, erase it and blow eraser shavings right in their eyes. And I always got away with it. It’s the kind of story every underdog loves. It’s a rerun of Tom and Jerry. I should get pummeled, but somehow I always manage to get that nasty cat with a frying pan, dynamite or something like that. The world says I’m a hero.
Hold your applause, please.
That’s not the kind of hero I want to be. I hope I am never known as a woman who always had a good comeback, who always knew how to defend herself. The words the apostle Peter wrote about Jesus ring in my head like the school bell I used to hear: “when He was reviled, He did not revile in return … [He] entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.” I want to be like that.
The Old Testament law demanded “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” That is justice. I liked that justice when I was nine years old, and when that girl messed with me, I quite literally went for her eye. But Jesus came along with a teaching that surpasses eye-for-eye justice; He taught grace, forgiveness, mercy and love for enemies.
“When the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.”
I need to grow up. I need to put aside those childish things.
The world loves a Tom and Jerry story. The world loves when an underdog rises up in his own strength, with his own wisdom and defeats the enemy. But God never works that way. We are underdogs, we will have enemies, but we know that God is going to do away with all evil, all malice, all meanness.
God will do it, not us.
Even Jesus relied on God for justice and victory. I can hear Him calling to me above the cafeteria room chatter to walk out the door of that elementary school and towards Him.
Because as long as I sit at that desk, that meanness still has power over me. As long as I stay there I’ll still see the face of every girl who ever uttered a mean word to me. I’ll remember what I said to them, and what I said about them behind their back. I’ll remember every eye roll and every little jab I took at them. I’ll remember purposefully trying to drive them crazy. I’ll still be on the defensive, always ready to beat a mean girl at her own game.
But strangely even when I “win” I don’t feel empowered; I feel imprisoned. I feel like even though my eraser-shaving friend was the one who ended up in both the nurse’s office and the principal’s office, she still won. She still got the best out of me.
Don’t be fooled, there is only one author of meanness, and it’s the only enemy we ever really fight against. When we retaliate in our own strength we’re in the same boat as those mean girls; we’re being used by the one who plants meanness, revenge, slandering, murder and evil into human hearts.
So 13 years later, I’m finally learning that I’m an adult (enter Andy Samberg). I can walk away from the nine-year-olds in the classroom. I’m not their classmate anymore. They don’t define who I am. With God’s strength, I can rise above it and actually love all the mean girls that I still come in contact with. I can forgive that girl who marked all over my paper, even if she’ll never know it. I can feel sympathy for them and show them a world outside of fourth grade tactics.
As for me, I’m done with cat-and-mouse games.