This morning, I sat at a table at my local Starbucks and I listened to three very pretty, very boisterous, horribly behaved young teenage girls at a table near me.
I heard them laugh about the girl who sang a song about being lonely at the talent show. “She is so weird!”
When they complained about the crappy presents people had given them in the past, “I swear, it looked like a used water bottle,” I began to squirm uncomfortably in my chair.
As they bashed some poor girl named Catherine who “wanted to be the lead singer, but we took a vote and everyone wanted me instead, so sorry Catherine – you can be the manager,” I glared at them, but it went unnoticed.
With each new topic I thought, “This couldn’t have been written in a more cliché-mean-girls way by a Hollywood scriptwriter.”
I fantasized about turning to them and telling them to stop. But instead I hemmed and hawed, hoping at any moment one of them would say something nice and redeem themselves, supposing maybe I was misunderstanding them… but, you know, that’s not how these things go. They fueled each other on and laughed louder and complained more. Finally, I couldn’t take it. I left to do my grocery shopping.
The entire time in the store, I felt conflicted. Should I have said something? Should I have stood up for the Catherines of this world? Professionally, I teach girls how to stand up for each other as part of my job and this felt like a problem I couldn't ignore. Personally, it hit home, too. I remembered being 13 and invited to a Bat Mitzvah. I persuaded my mom to take our very small budget-for-gifts money to a department store so I could pick out a bracelet for my friend. I chose a pretty collection of bright glassy beads strung together. And I vividly remember watching that friend open my gift at her house later, and then turn to another girl with a snickering, “A bunch of marbles? Okay….” I felt like a failure.
I drove by the Starbucks again on my way home, and saw them still sitting in the window. I raced home, ran into my house, grabbed a note card and wrote a quick, heartfelt note.
Then I ordered three mini Frappuccinos on my mobile app and headed back up to Starbucks. They were still there. I walked up to them and said, “Hi Girls. You don’t know me but it looks like you’re here studying and I wrote you a note of encouragement.” I handed them the card and walked away. (The drinks weren’t ready, but the barista agreed to deliver them for me.)
Here is what I wrote:
"I sat near you today in Starbucks and listened as you talked. You three are obviously pretty and hard-working. I wish your kindness matched your pretty exteriors. I heard you talk about a girl who sang a song about being lonely in the talent show – and you laughed. About a girl who couldn’t be lead singer because you got all the votes, about crappy presents other people have given you…and you sounded so mean and petty.
"You are smart and you are pretty. It would take nothing from you to also be kind. – M.”
Normally, I wouldn’t focus on a girl’s appearance like this, but in this case, I thought it was important to speak their language before I delivered my point. I also wanted to point out that having a “pretty card” only hides bad behavior for so long before people see past it. In high school, being pretty is still high value and I wanted to call attention to that.
Possibly they laughed and ditched my note in the trash along with the Frappuccinos. Or, they may have gotten defensive and complained to each other that I was a total over-reactor, and they didn’t mean what I thought I heard. And perhaps it’s true that I overstepped my bounds, but I have to believe that there is still room in our village for lessons from strangers with good intentions in their heart. I didn’t want to shame them out loud or put them on the spot. But my hope is that maybe, just one of them was only going along with the others, and tonight she will think about that in a meaningful way as she’s falling asleep.
Michelle is the author of "Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience Middle School" and a member of the TODAY Parenting Team. Visit MichelleIcard.com for more thoughts on helping kids navigate the tricky adolescent years.