When I was 11, a classmate of mine started hurting my feelings regularly. She was not a bully. In fact, she was my friend, and that made her unkindness hurt even more.
Once, we submitted speeches to the same contest. She told me there was no way my speech would be chosen.
Some days, she called me awesome. Some days, she would ignore me entirely.
She was subtle, undercutting. She would sneak in with a snide comment when I felt the most proud of myself or just when I happened to feel the most insecure. When I tried to “just hang out with other people,” she solidified her alliances with all of the rest of my friends.
I didn’t want to ask for help. It would count as tattling and my other friends would think I was being unfair. I knew all of the things I’d hear, and I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing any of the usual explanations—people act out against their friends because they’re insecure; she probably thought she was kidding and didn’t know she had been insulting me all this time.
When I finally worked up the courage to go and talk with a teacher, she didn’t seem worried. Friendships change in middle school, she explained. Sometimes people grow apart and hurt each other’s feelings accidentally in the process.
So, I tried to stick it out. I didn’t want to lose a friendship, and she wasn’t always a mean friend.
I decided I preferred a fickle friendship to no friendship at all.
It wasn’t that important to stand up for myself.
Until she said something that felt like the last straw, and I told my mom. I don’t even remember what she said that pushed me over the line, but I will always remember my mom’s lesson on how to deal with mean friends.
My mom told me to pick up the phone, call the girl (who she, decidedly, did not see as a “friend”), and tell her not to speak to me that way ever again. My mom told me a phone call would show her I wasn’t going to let her make me feel this way any longer, that she couldn’t just walk all over me and then call herself my friend. Finally, she convinced me. I needed to stand up for myself. That was what I needed. I called.
I knew making that call would effectively end our friendship. So did my mom.
But she knew my sense of self—and not this friendship—is what needed saving.
There are few things as volatile as middle school friendships and few things as unsteady as a middle schooler’s identity. A middle schooler’s life is full of constant turnover and transition; what’s cool and who’s cool and how to be cool are paramount, and it all can, and will, turn on a dime.
When my mom guided me through making that phone call, she proved that she was an anchor in an ever-changing time. She taught me to advocate for myself, to create boundaries, to believe I was worth better, and then to ask for better.
I had been taught—as we all are—the Golden Rule, over and over again. I tried to be the kind of friend I would want to have, but I had never before been taught to demand the kind of friend I deserved.