No More Mean Girls

Ladies, let’s be nice.

If you ever did time in that penitentiary called middle school, you know that preteen kids can be unequivocally mean. They’ll make up crude chants about your hair, clothes, or your prepubescent taste in zit-faced boys. They’ll spread rumors about who you tongue-kissed after school, refuse to dance with you at the spring fling, and call you “waterhead” as you put your tray away in the cafeteria. This awkward period between childhood and true adolescence can be traumatic for anyone, but it was especially harrowing for my fragile young heart.

I recently caught a flash of those embarrassing moments when I walked past a lineup of students from the Middle School of Mathematics and Science at Howard University on my way to the library. If it were 1976, pig’s blood could have fallen from the sky. But I smiled, held my shoulders back, and walked forward. I’m beyond those days, I thought. I know who I am and I accept myself. I kept walking. And, in a juicy plot twist that would’ve made Stephen King cower, a sprightly voice called out to me:

“You look cute!”

I paused for a millisecond. Well, I’ll be—a middle-school girl had something nice to say to me! Where was she 14 years ago? As I beamed and thanked her, more compliments followed. Another girl told me again, in the same tone as the first, that I looked cute. The next girl complimented my Steve Madden combat boots. I smiled like a Miss USA contestant as I walked past that lineup, thanking each charming girl for her kindness. I wore that grin long after I plopped down with my laptop in the library.

What kind of alternate universe had I stepped into, where middle-school girls are all sweet and nice and flattering? Had they really gotten that much nicer, or had my positive thinking projected an air of confidence? It could be either or both, but one thing was certain—those compliments felt great. And with all the stereotypes about black women being angry and critical, the fact that the praise came from little black girls made it even lovelier.

I don’t know what goes on in the school hallways nowadays, but I do know that those young ladies deserve praise for their candid kindness. When you’re that age, it’s easy to point fingers and sling insults at innocent people. But those girls presented themselves with an air of class that often eludes their peers. Their simple admiration helped my day sparkle a little more.

With time and some serious soul-searching—and hey, even therapy— you realize that the kids who picked on you never defined you. You learn to shed your insecurities and enjoy being yourself, whatever that entails. You learn that compliments are much more valuable than insults. So walk proudly, give praise freely. You never know what that person has gone through. If I learned anything from my middle-school retake, it’s that being nice is so much, well, nicer than being nasty—at any age.