When I first stepped into the linoleum halls of Boulan Park Middle School, I felt on top of the world. In fifth grade I was the (self-proclaimed) most popular girl and sixth grade was shaping up to be the same way.
Boys paid attention to me and wanted to "date" me and girls wanted my curled hair and cool Abercrombie & Fitch clothing. (Who else had the initials "AF" written all over their clothes?)
But something changed in seventh grade. I was one of the youngest in my class, so while the other girls were coming out of puberty with big boobs and straight teeth, I was entering awkward pre-pubescence with braces, acne, and a flat chest.
Nonetheless, I was still confident in my place in the middle school social world. In fact, I was one of those unusually rare kids who always thought I was the most beautiful, smart and popular girl, even when I wasn't.
I would sit at the cool kids' lunch table and pretend not to notice that my reserved seat was always taken and my invite to parties was never directly from the host.
One day after school, one of the mysterious, up and coming popular girls, Jenny, and I, were hanging out in her basement. We were checking our e-mail and came across a survey chain letter that rated the girls and boys in our middle school.
There were nearly thirty categories for discussion: best hair, most popular, best-looking, etc. My name was mentioned only once. Jenny's name was mentioned a few more times than mine, but we were still a little appalled at how our "competition" was mentioned in categories we felt we deserved.
"How did Laura, of all people, get best eyes? Ewww!" we gossiped and giggled to one another.
That's when Jenny had a brilliant idea on how to pass the next few hours before dinner. "Let's make up our own survey," she said.
"Okay," I agreed excitedly, my eyes widening with excitement.
But Jenny had a trick up her sleeve. "Instead of best of, let's do the worst of," she said innocently.
We both paused for a second, looked at each other, and started grinning from ear to ear. It was one of those grins with matching devilish eyes that were sparkling at doing something a bit naughty, and therefore so exciting.
Jenny and I began plugging away. We copied and pasted the super long survey into a new e-mail. The "best eyes" category became "worst eyes." The "best-looking girl" became the "worst-looking girl."
We added some original negative categories to capture the girls we really disliked, emphasizing their acne, annoying voices, or what we saw as "tag-along" attitudes.
The really popular girls we didn't hit as hard as the girls we thought didn't deserve to be on the fringes of the popular crowd. The irony of the fact that we WERE those second-tier girls never occurred to us.
Jenny was on her way in and I was on my out and both of us were desperate to impose our self-worth on our peers. Pointing out the flaws of others made us feel great about ourselves and very, very powerful.
An hour later, we finished the malicious survey and before we could evaluate the consequences, the e-mail was sent to all our friends, all the popular kids in seventh grade.
The catch? The e-mail was sent from my e-mail address with no ownership on Jenny's part.
I went home for dinner excited about the e-mail. There's something seductive about gossiping and laughing at other people.
I felt I was back on top of my game. I felt this e-mail would bring me closer to the popular girls, a sort of "insider's only" gossip.
An hour or two later I got a call from my lifelong neighbor and best friend.
"Andrea, did you write that e-mail?" she asked, gasping. I knew immediately from the tone of her voice that I had done something very wrong.
"Uh, yeah, why?" I hesitantly asked.
"It's sooooo mean," she said slowly.
"Really?" I asked perplexed. "I thought it was funny." Truthfully, the thought never occurred to me that this survey would be taken as anything but a hilarious inside joke for the popular clique.
"Everybody's calling me asking if you actually wrote it," she said to me.
"Really?" I asked again, feeling my cheeks flush with embarrassment. Everybody? All the popular kids? Did they hate me?
I had to defend myself. "It wasn't just me, it was Jenny's idea."
My best friend knew better than to take the excuse. She hung up the phone and I knew I had made a big mistake.
School wasn't the same after that day. Jenny became the most popular girl in school and I spent the next year trying desperately to re-establish broken relationships and cling to a social circle I had only myself to blame for betraying.
My phone eventually stopped ringing and I spent countless weekends watching TGIF by myself. If I did go to a party, it was because I had called a million people beforehand. No one seemed mad at me when I showed up; they just simply ignored me.
The invisibility crushed me. I felt so ashamed and misunderstood.
Jenny's manipulative ways were eventually uncovered and she fell off the social radar as well, but my social status never recovered.
In high school, the isolation continued and I had to make the choice: be angry with everyone or learn to make myself happy without friends.
I chose the latter.
I found my calling at fourteen when I traveled to Australia and was recognized as the beautiful and kind person I was now working so hard to create -deep inside. I spent the rest of high school traveling around the United States and the world making incredibly unique, life-long friends.
I became independent and confident. My "invisibility" became appealing "mystery" and I won back a lot of my friends I had lost in middle school. But I was never to be part of a group again.
After graduation, I moved to New York, my home, and have never returned.
Looking back I am still ashamed at my e-mail but am so proud that it made me a stronger, wiser, and nicer person. I learned important lessons at an early age.
First, respect the power of the word [spoken or printed] in unleashing the negative. Second, popularity does not give you the right to slander. And third, no one is untouchable.
In middle school, I sealed my fate as a mean girl and even in the movies the mean girl never comes out on top. In real life, you fall much faster than you ever thought possible.
Have a great day!