When I was in middle school I wanted desperately to fit in, to be liked by the cool kids. Didn’t we all at that age? So when one of the “it” girls handed me a burn book to write in anonymously, I foolishly took it home and did exactly that. A burn book back then was a place for us to rate the looks of people or write about who we had a crush on. It was also a book where people inevitably got slammed for their appearances or personalities.
And yes, I’m ashamed I ever wrote a single word in it.
After writing in it, mainly about who I had a crush on at the time, I passed it to someone else. This went around for a while. Eventually it made its way back to the girl that created it. She was someone I had assumed was a friend and badly wanted to be best friends with. Instead of keeping it private, she showed it to everyone. Soon everyone knew what had been written about them both good and bad. It was a total middle school nightmare straight out of the movie “Mean Girls”.
Pretty soon I found myself surrounded by an angry mob of sixth graders. The friend decided to announce the book was my creation and put my name to ninety percent of what was written in the book. I was absolutely mortified. It was my word against hers and her army. I didn’t stand a chance.
A teacher came over at some point and I did my best to plead my case. One other girl came forward and admitted to having written in the book. We were instantly the school pariahs.
That day was towards the end of the school year and we were having a field day. A field day is when the majority of the school goes outside to participate in activities and mingle. It was truly the worst day possible to have angered my entire grade.
At the end of field day I found myself again surrounded by an angry mob of students, screaming at me and threatening me. The leader was my now former friend. I remember trying to stand up for myself but soon older kids were part of the angry mob madness. I was scared and so embarrassed, humiliated in front of the entire school. In the end I was saved by a teacher before it escalated to hair pulling and physical blows.
When school let out for the summer I was still devastated and concerned about my safety. Hardly anyone would speak to me and a few kids on the bus threatened that if they ran into me over the summer I would pay for it. And at roughly 89 pounds and 4’11” I was not exactly the fighting type. I spent most of that summer indoors. I cried a lot. I wondered if I would ever have friends again and if I would ever be able to trust another if I did.
The shame I felt from my participation in the burn book was immense. I was not a bad person but I certainly felt like one. And while I didn’t write the entire book or create it, I still took part in it and was paying a very heavy price.
I survived that summer and lived to eventually, slowly, make new friends. Better friends. But I never forgot the impact the burn book had on me and the toll it took on my confidence at that age. I apologized to those that I hurt and even to some that I didn’t.
And it took a while to realize that I was not a bad person even though I had done a bad thing. Kids that age are so susceptible to peer pressure and to joining in with the crowd. Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers University explains in his study on behavior that “Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it’s socially acceptable.” Admittedly, I thought it was fun because everyone else was doing it even though my instincts screamed it was wrong.
We all have done stupid things as kids and even as adults. What defines us is not how we acted in those situations but how we turned those situations into either a positive or negative growth experience. And, while painful, I believe that I did grow from the burn book experience.
I learned the pain of being bullied and how it felt to sit in the cafeteria alone. This led to a high school experience where I purposely befriended those that seemed alone or had unfair reputations. And that has carried over into how I treat people today.
This helped develop my empathy and taught me that trust shouldn’t always be so easily given. And, more importantly, that nobody is worth abandoning my moral values for no matter how cool they seem to be.
Because the real cool kids know that kindness is king.
~Stephanie March (writer and advocate)