When I was seven years old I did something very mean to another girl. It was so mean that I still feel bad about it 63 years later—when I happen to think about it.
It turns out that the girl I was mean to doesn’t just feel bad about it; she feels that I ruined her life. My meaness as a seven-year-old resurfaced when my friend Carol was seated next to “Linda’s” husband at a dinner party. Carol and the husband did the dinner party “where did you grow up?” thing. When he mentioned that his wife had gone to the tiny private school on the Upper West Side that was my educational home for 14 years, Carol asked if he knew me—Janie Rosen.
Ah yes, he certainly did. His wife mentioned my name often. “Often? Did he really say ‘often’’’ I asked Carol? Yes he did.
Important fact: Linda and her family moved to Westchester at the end of second grade and we have not seen each other since.
When Carol told me about meeting Linda and learning that I had ruined her life, I called my friend Liza—a co-conspirator in second grade and a close and constant friend since then. Liza remembered the episode well and we combined our recollections to reconstruct what happened back then in 1948. There was a fourth participant, Ronnie, my “best friend” and bête noir.
We were four little girls living within a couple of blocks of each other and close to our school. Our parents were friends; they were prosperous enough to be sending their children to private school, but, still in their thirties, they were young in their professions. Hedge funds did not exist. They drove Chevrolets and shopped at Loehmann’s.
In our seven-year-old eyes, Linda’s family acted gratuitously “poor,” especially for people with a country house. Linda told us they used oleo margarine because butter was too expensive; that the hot lunch served at school was actually their main meal—dinner. The meal they had at home in the evening was just supper.
I also believe but do not actually remember that she was a little too quick to pitch in at clean-up time in school and possibly shared her pleasure in wearing hand-me-downs. Linda was a very good girl.
Now for the meanness. We, Liza, Ronnie and I, decided that Linda was just a little smug about her virtuous family’s habits.
We three others felt we had to take action. It was up to us to inform Linda that she was too good. In fact, she was a “goody-goody.”
In our twisted seven-year-old minds, we decided that this would be helpful to Linda—that realizing she was a goody-goody would encourage her to—to what? To be more materialistic? Wistful about her deprivations (no butter!)? Stop making the rest of us feel guilty about our own general lack of public helpfulness?
Even from the distance of 63 years, (although fewer than 5 miles), from the mean deed, I am at a loss to understand why we did it.
In fact, I think we might have abandoned our plan to facilitate Linda’s transition from goody-goody to material girl if my mother had not intervened.
It is my mother’s role in this sad enterprise that I find the most bewildering. In my fuzzy recollection, Liza, Ronnie and I confided in my mother our plan to talk to Linda about her unfortunate affliction. She suggested that rather than talk to Linda, we write her a letter.
The reason my mother suggested writing a letter to Linda has eluded me since 1948. I absolutely cannot imagine why she helped us—barely literate at age seven—to write a mean letter to one of our playmates.
But that’s what we did. We wrote a letter, mailed it and watched for a response. I barely remember what happened, but Liza recalls a nasty brouhaha among the adults. Her own mother taking it as what is now called a teaching moment used the episode to impress on Liza that she must be protective of underdogs. To this day, she is kind to the weakest among us, sometimes, she ruefully observes, to her detriment.
I am no longer in touch with Ronnie, whom I tend to think of as the ringleader, so I do not know what she remembers of this. But when I think back to my “best friend” relationship with Ronnie, it makes me kind of queasy. She wasn’t very nice to me and I didn’t do a very good job of fighting back. But she didn’t ruin my life.
Did I ruin Linda’s life? For a few days, I thought I had. But Google helped—long marriage, family foundation, children, travel—not so bad. Talking to my friends helped: “second grade?” Lots of “when my daughter was seven…” horror stories. A therapist friend dismissed the ruined life idea after describing the suicide of the mother of a thirteen-year-old; that added perspective.
So, I reject the ruined life trope. I reject the notion that I was a mean girl. I will always wonder about my mother’s role. And I am really and truly sorry that I was mean and that my meaness made Linda so unhappy for so long. ❏
Jane Barowitz lives mostly in New York and sometimes in Maine.
Photo by Caroline Hernandez.
Your mother totally MISSED the teachable moment and I lay the blame for the pain caused with her, but you still grew up to be one of the most empathetic people I know, who would never cause gratuitous pain, so she must not have done everything wrong.
Fascinating which moments in childhood become emblematic in some way. I think the incident spoke not to your inherent meanness, but to your wish to be safely ensconced in this little group who judged others. Not sure what to make of your mother’s role.
Poor Linda. Do you think that was the worst thing that ever happened in her life? That would be impressive.
Many people replied directly to me about this piece, not exactly about the piece, but about the episode. It was deeply disturbing to people who were there as children and knew me and my mother and for others it brought up similarly disturbing episodes from their own childhoods. We were seven-year-olds. How evil could we have been? I think about “The Bad Seed” and “Lord of the Flies.” Were we like that? Was I the ringleader? And what in the world was my mother thinking?