"Alright, here's what we're going to do," Shannon instructed us. Her eyes rested on her target, a shimmer of excitement in them. Alexis sat against the wall, alone, her stringy dirty blonde hair forming a curtain around her face, hiding her mismatched canine eyes. "We're going to take turns walking past Alexis, and each of us is going to say something mean to her."
(Well, that's what she said in those words more of less. We were in fifth grade at the time, and had a perverse attraction to the word 'like' because in our 11-year-old minds, we thought it made us sound like teenagers. Sort of like profanity. So in reality, Shannon probably said something along the lines of, "Let's like each walk past Alexis and then like we'll like say something mean to her. Bitch." But that's the beauty of reconstructed scenes--dialogue doesn't have to be verbatim if it's for clarity's sake.)
It was a test. The fifth grade minions who did Shannon's biding would ensure their place amongst the elementary school elite--a popularity that would prove to last well into junior high and beyond. And I had somehow beat all odds--massive round glasses, love of books, lack of name brand jeans, no fear t-shirt and general inherent coolness--by being allowed to pledge.
We formed a line. I didn't protest. I watched the other girls fall in line, Shannon leading the troupes. But when my time came, I walked away. It wasn't worth it.
Alexis hadn't done anything wrong. Everyone knew that she even used to be best friends with Shannon until Shannon deemed her uncool, and the entire fifth grade class followed suit. (It wasn't until my later years that I realized Shannon's dispute with Alexis was probably largely due to the fact that she wore a dirty torn winter jacket.)
It was only the start. In tenth grade (or was it eleventh?) one of the cool druggie kids attacked a friend of a friend for wearing black nail polish. He didn't stand up for himself, so I did it for him, snidly replying back to all the bully's insults until he finally backed down and walked away swearing at me, clearly
frustrated by my superior intelligence. (Let's keep that dream alive, okay?) In turn, the friend of a friend told me he could defend himself, and also walked away swearing. (I had become such a "freak" that even the other freaks didn't want to be associated with me.)
But this is all beyond the point. The point was that somewhere along the line, I became the voice for the underdog. Defender of human rights! Voice for the freaks! Pushes bullies back in the schoolyard!*
But not anymore. The RRJ lab is sometimes a toxic place, and there's been more than one night that I go home with a sour taste in my mouth. Except in this case, the underdogs are the lazy, the selfish, and definitely not the intellectually elite the rest of us herald ourselves to be. It's the exact role reversal of elementary school.
It would be too easy to account this to our classroom composition-only two males in a sea of women. But I don't think gender is to blame. We are, by profession, gossips. It's the one inherent trait we all have in common. (After all, why else would someone want to become a journalist? So they can keep news to themselves? Not exactly the most effective way of earning a salary, or getting a job, for that matter.) Cattiness and feminity have nothing to do with the news we spread. But they may have to do with how we spread that news.
Are our attacks and badmouthing bonding sessions unwarranted, like with Alexis? No, not necessarily. Most of the time it's a bitching session about how someone isn't doing their work and how they're increasing the work load for everyone else. (You think you hate "group projects"? Try an eight-month one based on a magazine read by 10,000 people. And then get back to me.) But these gossip sessions are plagued by the same group mentality that made each of my would-be friends walk past Alexis that day. We want to fit in, we want to belong and no one wants to be the underdog.
We all want to be liked.
*This also happened in fifth grade, when this big kid named Todd, who in retrospect probably had some sort of learning disability, picked a fight with me. Or I picked a fight with him. If I remember correctly, I butted in to an argument at the bus stop to defend a younger kid that he was picking on. He was fat and scary, to put it bluntly. At recess I was told that he was going to beat me up. I wasn't assured that my snowsuit would provide sufficient padding, so when we met in the schoolyard that day, a crowd of kids gathered around us, and I either kicked him the leg really hard, or pushed him. (I was a fifth grade girl. These were my main two line of defenses.) I can't remember which. Regardless, I was pretty popular that day, for one day only, for bullying the bully. And he never picked on little kids at the bus stop around me after that.