"I hate Leah*," my daughter said, as she got into the car after her math tutoring session.
"Any particular reason?" I asked, trying to keep the mood light. Teenagers love the drama, and my teenager is no exception. Maybe talking her through it would clear this all up.
"She told me I couldn't sit at the lunch table."
My heart sank. My freshman daughter had never been good at making friends, and this did not sound good. "Tell me what happened," I said, hoping for a minor misunderstanding.
"I went to sit at the table I normally sit at with a group. You know the same ones I have been sitting with, the three sophomores and Leah* and Parker*, my classmates from middle school." I nodded and she continued. "There were two empty seats. One of the sophomores, Asian Girl, said the seat was taken."
"Asian Girl?" I laughed a little, and she joined in. "That's a bit of a stereotype. Don't you know her name?" My daughter shook her head. "You're not very good with names." She shook her head no again. "Okay, she said the seat was taken. Did you ask who the seat was taken by?"
"Yes, but she didn't say. So I asked her again who was sitting there. She still didn't say. So I moved over and took the other empty seat."
My mind spun like a Vegas roulette wheel with scenes from classic high school movies flashing before my eyes. The lunch room is a battlefield where the conflicts are sung out, danced out, and just plain punched out, sometimes accompanied by a food fight. Anyone and everyone in the school ends up in the cafeteria at some point, so anything can happen. Getting ejected from a lunch table is so cliché. Apparently, based on my daughter's experience, it is still happening.
"Then what?" I prompted.
"Leah said I couldn't sit there at their table. So I went and sat by myself and ate lunch." She paused, then continued, "After I finished I went back to the table and sat down. They all got up and left."
"Hmm, " I said, trying to come up with something brilliant, but obviously failing. "Are you sure they weren't trying to be funny?" She shook her head no. "What did Parker say?" Maybe her other former classmate would be more kind.
"She wasn't there." My daughter sounded a little sad, but not devastated. Good, I thought to myself, now I have to get her feel like a hero, not a victim. How could I put her back in control? So I started laughing. My daughter looked at me, a little confused.
"You have got to be kidding me," I said, and kept laughing "That sounds like a bad teen movie, and a few good ones." She didn't look convinced, but she wasn't crying. "That line is straight out of Mean Girls." The movie, Mean Girls, is one of our favorites. It features Lindsay Lohan at her peak, halfway between the cuteness of Parent Trap and totally losing her mind, dignity, and career in her drug-arrest twenties. "Did everyone at the table say you couldn't sit there?"
"No, the boy didn't say anything. And neither did the other girl I don't like much." I started laughing again. "Why is that funny? " she said. I explained that she only knew the names of half the group, and the rest had just labels. Perhaps she might relate better to the group if she asked their names.
I also told her the silent ones were typical bystanders, who may not actually support the bullies, but are afraid to say anything even if they don't approve. It is hard to stand up to a bully, because you might become the next target.
"So tomorrow, go back and sit at the table. If they tell you the seat is taken, do what you did today, and ask who." She nodded, on familiar ground. "If they tell you that you can't sit at their table, start laughing. Then tell them they are behaving like the movie, Mean Girls."
"And they are the Mean Girls?" she asked. I nodded. "They might say I can't sit there again."
"But at least you haven't run away, and you might get them to laugh about it." She didn't look convinced.
"I don't want to be friends with people who treat me like that," she said. Silently, I agreed with her. Lunchroom Nazis are not my first choice as friends for my daughter. "At least they don't have a burn book, " my daughter put in, "Or call themselves the Plastics."
"Maybe they are still working on it." She laughed again, starting to enjoy the comparison. "Now all l you need to complete the teen movie clichéd plot is an evil cheerleader. Blonde."
She thought for a minute and said, "I don't think we have any evil cheerleaders. Even the blonde ones."
We started laughing together again, and life was good for the time being.
*Leah and Parker are pseudonyms. Even an MG deserves privacy. And there are two sides to every story