The middle school counselor and I sit in chairs, our postures consciously constructed to appear non-threatening. It’s no small thing for an eighth-grade girl to face down two adults, even this eighth-grade girl, who sits upright and alert, the ingratiating smile she employs with authority figures carefully in place.
The time has come to call this young lady out. I won’t belabor you with the evidence, but the counselor and I know darn well that she’s the one with her hand on the ladle, stirring the cauldron of mean-spirited brew with which her lieutenants — other eighth-grade girls — have been dousing their selected victims, which include not only their peers but some of their teachers.
We strive to be fair. We’ve addressed the behavior of the participants in the toxic games. Which is only on one of the reasons we know that this particular damsel is at the nexus, the puppet master in a nasty little march of the marionettes.
She’s way too young to understand the reference I keep wanting to use: Eddie Haskell, the character on the now-ancient Leave It To Beaver television series. Eddie took delight in seeding trouble, rousing his compatriots to enact the unworthy scenarios he dreamed up, while staying out of the spotlight of blame himself. Around Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver he oozed complaisance, his demeanor sugar-coated to the point of causing cavities.
The girl in the chair across from us is out of the Eddie Haskell mold, but with a darker edge. She and her cohorts have engineered a social micro-climate so polluted with hostility that there are now kids who don’t want to come to school, and their parents are alarmed. So we let her know, calmly but without equivocation, that we’re onto her.
She gets it. Her eyes widen, her chin dips. Accepting responsibility for one’s crappier behavior is hard enough for adults to do, let alone a 14-year-old. The counselor and I are very clear that it’s the behavior we’re objecting to, not the girl herself. A little support is called for.
“There’s an upside here, Kelly (not her real name, of course),” I say. “It’s clear that you have leadership potential.” Her chin lifts slightly. “In fact, you’re an influencer,” I add. She’s as social-media-savvy as anyone, far more than me in fact, so she understands the current power of that term. Her eyes brighten.
My colleague takes it from there, painting a vivid picture for Kelly of how, like a morally conflicted superhero, she could use her powers for good, and what it might look like if she steered her minions in a kinder, more positive direction.
By now Kelly is smiling with relief. “My parents say when I was younger and they watched me playing with the other kids, everybody was always doing what I wanted to do,” she says.
I believe that. And Kelly is hardly a bad kid, if such a person even exists. She’s just figuring things out, and like most of us, doing what works for her. Despite Wonder Woman and Michelle Obama and our current focus on getting woke, it’s all very new. There still isn’t much of a template in place for young women when it comes to learning to wield power in a positive way.
I have high hopes for Kelly, tempered by realism. She’s not just up against the tidal pull of middle-school dynamics; she is coming of age, like her peers, in a larger context wherein examples of corrupt, self-serving, dishonest leadership have become the norm.
Several years ago, I attended an evening workshop on the topic of leadership. Here’s my takeaway: no organization surpasses its leader. I found that thought dispiriting, and it’s one I’ve mulled over many times. I have to say it is borne out by recent history, both in my private life and certainly in the public sphere.
As humans, we seem wired for hierarchy and tribalism. When our leaders are capable and mostly good — think Lincoln, think Ghandi, think Churchill — we are able to surpass ourselves, and rise to challenges in heroic ways. When we are subject to destructive or immoral leadership — Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot are obvious examples, but the past 150 years abounds in others less glaring but certainly poisonous; I leave it to you to decide who in our current leadership qualifies — we descend to hatred and cruelty.
But these are collective responses. In every evil regime, there are those individuals who swim against the current. They are the ones whose choices, whether personal or far-reaching, eventually turn the tide. It’s a tall order to buck the system, whether for a 14-year-old girl or an adult. We’ve all got a lot to lose. But these are the times that Kelly and you and I were born into, and these are the choices that lay before us, every single day.