A Facebook post from an author I admire caught my eye over the weekend for the ways it touched on mean girl culture.
Michelle Icard, author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years,” posted about sitting at her local Starbucks in North Carolina and overhearing three girls, whom she guessed to be about ninth-graders, poking fun at a fourth girl who wasn’t present.
“I’m crawling out of my skin sitting next to three very pretty, very boisterous, horribly behaved young teenage girls,” Icard posted on Facebook. “So far they have laughed about 1) a girl who wrote a song for the talent show about being lonely … 2) the crappy presents they have gotten in the past from friends 3) girls who copy them. … It is taking all my restraint to keep from exploding so I’m complaining to you all instead.”
Ninety minutes later, Icard shared a follow-up post with a photo of a note she’d delivered to the girls.
“I left and went to do my grocery shopping, conflicted the whole time, and I could see the girls still sitting in Starbucks as I drove home,” she wrote in the follow-up.
“I 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.)”
The note read: “Hi Girls! 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.”
Icard, who also has developed a social leadership curriculum for schools, wrote about the experience on her blog, and I called her to talk about it.
“I have a pretty strong mind-your-own business policy, but I was sitting there having such a visceral reaction,” Icard told me. “I thought, ‘Maybe nobody else is going to give them this feedback. I don’t know that they’re going to hear this any other way.’”
She said she was terrified to hand the girls the note. “When I got to the Starbucks, my knees were knocking,” she said.
But the chance of inspiring them to evaluate the power of their words compelled her.
“My best-case scenario is they would all three go, ‘I did not realize how that sounded,’ or ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel bad,’” Icard said. “That’s best-case, but far-fetched. My best realistic scenario is they laughed it off or thought, ‘What a weird old lady,’ but they went home, and one of them was thinking, “I felt a little funny saying that stuff, and now I know why.’
“Sometimes, at that age, you go along, but you feel a little guilty,” Icard said. “I hope this causes them to re-evaluate that feeling if they had a little of it.”
A handful of people have questioned why Icard commented about the girls’ appearance – in the posts and in her note.
“I think it’s an important part of the story,” she said. “I think that’s a way a lot of girls hide their bad behavior, by fitting in perfectly physically.”
I think that’s true of grown women as well. Heck, men and boys too.
One of the most fascinating parts of the whole ordeal, in fact, is how quickly it transcends teen girl behavior. Who among us hasn’t witnessed – or taken part in – a conversation that left a pit in our stomach? Who hasn’t wondered whether and when to speak up?
“I think all of us, when we’re caught up sometimes, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about someone who has feelings,” Icard said. “And just because they’re not there doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful. That’s what I’m hoping they realize – maybe in a private, quiet moment later or maybe when they see someone else doing it. Being nice doesn’t take anything away from you.”
I’m glad Icard weighed in, because I’m a firm believer in the takes-a-village approach to raising good humans. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did the note overstep some sort of boundary, or did it provide some much-needed guidance? Or something in between? Email me your thoughts, and we’ll continue the conversation in a future column.
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Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com.