I was new to Suzhou when I began attending the British international school in which I had my first experience with a girl gang. I had just moved from Hong Kong and was thrilled with the ties and plaid skirts we were required to wear, the fountain pens we were required to write with, and the accents of the teachers. It was my third day or so when the most popular girl in the fifth grade, an American girl named Jenny,* confronted me for the first time.
You must understand that I was a different person in fifth grade. I was meek and quiet at school. I had small wire-framed glasses and stick-straight hair, and I didn’t roll up my uniform skirt to make it shorter. This is why when Jenny, the most popular girl in the fifth grade, walked up to me, smiling, I almost died of embarrassment. This is because Jenny was never alone; her girl gang trailed behind her.
Jenny was both boy-popular and girl-popular. She was the first one to kiss a boy, and she even played spin the bottle with middle-schoolers sometimes. She was very sporty and had a ton of guy friends (until that year, I hadn’t heard that phrase—I thought boys could be your friends without having a special name) and even some boyfriends. She was, in short, the coolest.
“Hey, do you want to hang out with us?” she asked me. I did, very much. I spent the rest of the day at the back of the gang that trailed behind Jenny. Over time, through a series of sleepovers, presents, and boyfriend-advice sessions, I moved up to the front, and got to walk beside Jenny with another girl, named Alex. Alex was half Chinese and used to go out with Jenny’s Korean boyfriend. “I’m breaking the boundaries,” Jenny explained. “He’s pretty cute, and it’s racist if only Asians date Asians.” I loved how she was such a good person! I mean, mostly people dated people from their own countries at that school, and Jenny, a white redhead from the U.S., wasn’t afraid of being judged. (Not that they were the only interracial couple. Or that anyone would ever judge Jenny. She was so smart and pretty and nice—what was there to judge?)
Pretty soon, Alex was replaced by Katie, who also happened to be half Chinese. I had never really seen her before; I didn’t even know she was part of the gang until one day when she showed up at the front of the procession. Jenny decided the three leaders were best friends, and she set me up with her guy friend Andrew. He was OK. We hung out one time, and another time we held hands on the bus. I was excited to have a boyfriend, especially one sanctioned by Jenny.
“God, look at her! No wonder she doesn’t have any friends; she’s so rude,” Jenny scoffed at Louisa. Louisa was the tall, gangly French girl that Jenny (and therefore the whole gang) hated because she looked at the puberty books in the library and wore pink earrings. “She’s tall, blond, and girly. She’s just the popular cheerleading bimbo pervert who’s totally in love with my guy friend Jake.” I nodded, letting it pass that our school didn’t even have cheerleaders. “Did I tell you about that time she confessed her love? It was hilarious!” I laughed, and said no, even though I was lying. Good friends always let their friends have their moments. “OK, so we were just in class, right? And she bursts though the door, screaming ‘WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME?’ at him, crying her eyes out. Then he said because she was ugly. She asked how and he said ‘because you’re fat.’ Then she ran away crying! Oh my god. Did you know Samantha saw her reading ‘Changing Bodies’?” Samantha, a few feet away, nodded vigorously.
“It’s not nice to call people fat,” I said quietly on our next sleepover. “If she really liked him she could develop an eating disorder or something.”
“Oh, Louisa?” said Jenny. “Whatever. I guess. Why do you make everything sound so technical? I bet Andrew doesn’t like that; you’re lucky you’re pretty.”
“Why are you so annoying?” Jenny screamed at Louisa one day.
“Shut up!” Louisa yelled, running into the bathroom.
I piped up, “Stop being so rude to my friend, just because you don’t have any!” The whole gang laughed, and I blushed. It was like we were friends with each other for a moment, instead of all of us being friends with Jenny. I hated myself at that moment, but I loved being noticed for once.
“Thanks,” Jenny said. “You’re a good friend. But I can stand up for myself.”
I started to like Andrew more. He was really smart and he didn’t gossip, even though he was mean to Louisa and called people “gay.”
“That’s not nice to say,” I told him one day at lunch when the popular boys had joined our gang’s table.
“What? Are you going to vote for Adam Lambert next or something?” Katie asked.
“Maybe, if my mom will let me make the long-distance call. He’s really good, isn’t he? I kinda want black hair now,” I replied casually, even though I knew what was coming.
“He’s gay with another guy. It’s just not meant to be,” Jenny said, annoyed. “The Bible says so, Ruby.” I flushed with anger and embarrassment. Who cared if he was gay? I was also Jewish, but I didn’t mention that.
“Well, I think he’s still a good singer,” I said, bracing myself for impact.
“Not half as good as Jenny! She should go on AI when she’s 16!” said a girl from the other end of the table. Murmurs of agreement followed.
“Aw, thanks, guys!” said Jenny, shooting me a look, and that was the end of it.
“Jenny, you’re so good at math, will you help me with number 9?” I asked apologetically after lunch one day. I always did my homework at recess because it was usually time for spin the bottle with the popular boys, and I had decided I hated all of them. Today, for some reason, it was canceled, but I kept on doing my homework.
“No.” Jenny rolled up a gum wrapper in her hand and I flinched. “How could you be so embarrassing?” she said. “Who cares if you like some goth guy? Everyone has their issues, and you don’t need to be the center of attention all the time.”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “Sorry,” I said. I was not sorry for being in love with Adam Lambert; I was sorry for making a big deal out of it, as the gang might say.
“It’s OK,” she sighed, and the rest of the gang began to giggle. The back of Louisa’s skirt was tucked into her backpack! I felt a pang of pity and almost got up to tell her before the boys saw. Then I looked at Jenny and began rummaging though my notes, pretending not to have even noticed Louisa’s pink underwear peeking through the dark plaid.
“Oh, Katie, but you know she’s the leader,” I stammered into the phone. “She stands in front of us when we walk, and she has friendship bracelets up to her elbows! Everyone knows. I’m skipping math group today because I don’t know what to say to her. And I think Andrew is starting to hate me, too, but Jenny was the one who set us up so he can’t—” I broke off and dropped the house phone. Jenny was standing in the doorway, looking annoyed.
“Math group just started! What are you doing?”
“Oh. Um…I was talking to Katie on the phone. I can’t go today. My parents aren’t home and they won’t know where I am, and I don’t have a cellphone.” I groped around the floor for the phone without breaking eye contact with Jenny.
“You just don’t want to go!” she said. “I know you’re bad at math, you kept begging to copy me today.” I didn’t remember that.
“I do hate math, but I couldn’t go if I wanted to.” She waited, as if I had to say something more. “I can’t leave Katie waiting, hold on.”
“Have fun with your friend Katie,” Jenny said, turning on her heel and walking out the door. It slammed shut. Shaking and almost in tears, I picked up the phone.
“I’m sorry, Katie, I have to go,” I choked. “I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.” I slammed the phone down and ran up to my room to cry and analyze the situation.
We had just discovered Facebook, and though it was censored in China and therefore hard to get to without a proxy, it came in handy for the shunning that came next. The gang kept me on their friend lists, and I was afraid to unfriend them. In the tagging games, I was “whore.” I was the whore who had held hands with one boy in my life and never even hugged anyone but my family and friends.
In previous months, we had used code names for other people when we wanted to gossip about them. My code name was now, creatively, “the bitch.” Katie pointed and laughed and screamed at me with the rest, and I could see them passing notes right in front of me: “Look at the bitch’s shoes!” in big black letters. I looked down at my Mary Janes. Not three weeks ago Samantha and Katie had picked them out of my closet especially because they said they were cute.
Andrew broke up with me in an email. When I called him he admitted that Jenny and the others said I was “really mean” and that he had to do it, because friends come first. I whispered into the receiver that he was a coward and, when he didn’t respond, hung up.
I sat alone at lunch. I would get tattled on when my shirt was untucked and have it suggested that I get detention. When I would cough, someone would tell me to shut up and say that I was so rude and distracting. My lunchbox had things mysteriously disappear from it, so I began to take food in my pockets and eat under the stairs with the gym equipment while I cried and heard people above me talking about “the bitch.”
I never once stood up for myself, except in a few email fights. I shook Andrew’s hand when he offered it, on the last day of school. I regret nothing more to this day than all the times I sat under the stairs sobbing instead of sitting in the lunchroom, head held high like I didn’t care.
Louisa moved away during that year, but on the last day of school she came back to visit the friends I never knew she had. I saw her in the crowd after school. The old gang, still together, had gone up to her and said something. I tried to make my way though the crowd to apologize, to tell her I understood, to tell her I had stood up for her one night at a sleepover, just a teeny bit. But when I got there the whole group was gone, and I never found her. ♦
* All names except for the author’s have been changed.
Ruby Book is a bass and ukulele player who has lived in Hong Kong, China, and Rhode Island with her family and her intersex dog. After the school year that she writes about in this essay, her family moved to a different city and she started at a new school, where things, she says, were better. Her blog (which we highly recommend) is here.