****Seriously, talk about me behind my back as much as you want. I'm flattered by the attention.
Knotty brought up a situation in her blog that reminded me of a particular girl with whom I shared middle school and three years of high school. This situation involved friends, or, in this case, "fake" friends, and the very-senstive-to-some-issue of talking about one behind one's back.
My situation didn't involve social media, as we weren't quite so involved in it back in the day (I never was, for that matter), but it would soon enough pervade most of our lives. I think this would have been somewhere around the point where Facebook took over MySpace in prevalence, but most of our parents back then weren't thrilled about their children being too wrapped up in such media before we were even out of middle school. They felt, and rightly so, that we shoud have more important things to do with our time. While my parents may have gone a bit overboard with this concept, I suspect the strategies of today's parents would be improved by a similar philosophy. High school is plenty early to be introduced to the world of Facebook and to its grungier counterparts.
Anyway, the former schoolmate of mine, to whom I shall refer as Kathryn (not her real name), had a particular pet peeve of anyone talking about her behind her back. It seemed that at least twice a week she would take on someone in our circle of classmates for a violation of this imaginary or self-authored rule.
Kathryn's seemingly favorite phrase was ,"You're talking about me behind my back!" In my day, or at least in my neighborhood, (probably in your day and neighborhood as well), nice girls did not have physical altercations, so despite the fact that the girl about whom everyone apparently had nothing better to do but talk about behind her back was substantially taller and stouter than I, it was almost a given that none of us had any reason to fear physical retribution for any of this. After about the fifth time in a single month or so that Kathryn had approached me, usually followed by a gaggle of girls no closer in association to her than to me but bored and hoping for entertainment in the form of hostile feline repartee, to utter this line.
I told her that despite what she may or may not have heard, I couldn't recall having said anything behind her back that I wouldn't have said to her face. I told her that I couldn't remember any specific conversation in which her name had come up in recent days other than one involving cell phones. I admitted to her that I had said, "Kathryn's cell phone is purple." If that offended her, I told her, I was sorry, as I certainly had not said it with the intent of offending her, nor had I said it in an unkind way. I merely stated matter-of-fact-ly, "Kathryn's cell phone is purple." I looked at the cell phone in her hand. "Unless that's someone else's cell phone you're holding, or unless something is really wrong with my color perception, it would appear that your cell phone IS purple. I was merely stating a fact in this case. It wasn't even an opinion. It was a concrete, objective fact."
Kathryn paused. "But why were you even talking about what color my cell phone is?"
"I don't remember, Kathryn," I answered impatiently. "We have a relatively small number of people who travel from class to class together. Every now and then, your name may pop up. I don't know about everyone else, but if a situation that relates to you happens to come up, I don't necessarily think to scan the crowd before uttering your name."
"In the future, I'd appreciate it if you would," she answered.
"No, Kathryn, I won't," I said. "If what I am communicating is neither slanderous nor libelous, I have every legal right to say it in accordance with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." (As eighth graders, we were all heavily involved in the study of the constitution. Kathryn and I had particular buy-in concerning the mandated constitution study, as both of us, at that point in our lives, planned to become attorneys.) "Taking it one step further," i continued, "according to the rules of this school, if what I'm saying is, in addition to being true, neither unkind nor intended in any way to stir up trouble, i can say it. " I paused to allow her to comment, but she said nothing so I continued. "Knowing how you feel, if I happen to be involved in a conversation, knowing how you feel about being discussed when you aren't present, I'll try to make note of the fact that you're not there, and I won't bring your name up regardless of how benign the reference might have been."
"I'd appreciate that," Kathryn responded.
"But I don't control the mouths of everyone else in the group, Kathryn," I told her. "And just because I was physically present when you name came up in a conversation does not mean I was talking about you behind your back. You'll have to take that one up with the person who mentioned you."
Kathryn looked less pleased with this pledge, but she nonetheless nodded.
A teacher who had playground supervision duty, who had been silently observing the verbal exchange, chose to interject her own thoughts at this point. "Kathryn, people are going to talk about you when you aren't present, or, as you're so fond of putting it, 'talk about me behind my back,' for your entire life if you're worth talking about, and there's not much you can do about it."
"I'm not sure I agree with you about that, " Kathryn challenged the teacher's statement.
The teacher thought for a moment, then continued. "Scooter Libby [former chief-of-staff to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney] is being tried for lying to a grand jury, among other things. Do you think that the prosecution is talking about him behind his back? Do you think the grand jury talked about him behind his back? Do you think the jury on this trial will talk about his behind his back when they're deliberating, or are they going to say, 'It wouldn't be very nice to talk about Scooter behind his back, so we'll invite him into the jury room while we're deliberating?' What do you think, Kathryn?"
"Well, that's not really the same thing," Kathryn contended.
"It's different in that you're not presently living a high-profile life, but the laws are the same. What's said needs to be true or clearly stated as a matter of opinion. And we have an added layer of protection here at school because you're all technically children, that what is said should not be unkind. Megan shouldn't say that Alexis' new shoes are ugly even if that's her honest opinion, or at least she shouldn't say it unless Alexis comes right out and asks Megan, point-blank, what she, Megan, thinks of Alexis' shoes. If you ask for someone's opionion, be careful what you're asking for."
"Your new shoes are ugly, Alexis," Megan blurted out.
"I didn't ask for your opinion," i responded to her, "and besides, they're not even new."
We both laughed.
The teacher continued, "And Kathryn, how do you ever hope to get into law school if you don't want anyone to talk about you nehind your back? I guarantee the committee deciding who gets in isn't going to drop your application into the stack of those candidates accepted without first talking about you behind your back. The only pile your application will be dropped into with no discussion is the pile of rejects."
"We'll just SEE about that," Kathryn huffed.
"See about WHAT?" the teacher countered, "I'm not saying you won't be accepted into the law school of your choice. i AM saying, however, that if you write across the top of your application in bold letters, 'DON'T TALK ABOUT ME BEHIND MY BACK!' you will drastically reduce your own chances of acceptance."
"This is SILLY!" Kathryn sputtered.
"Yes, it is silly," the teacher called out as Kathryn walked away. "And teachers have votes in the eighth-grade citizenship awards. I'm not speaking for the other teachers, but I for one am getting tired of watching you try to intimidate other girls on the playground with all your nonsense about being talked about behind your back. You need to grow an extra layer of skin, because it's going to get worse before it gets any better in terms of what people say about you when you're not around. And if you keep acting the way you're acting now, what is said about you, both to your face and behind your back, isn't going to be all that nice!"
"My MOTHER is going to hear about this!" Kathryn threatened the teacher.
"Good. I hope she does," the teacher called out to Kathryn. " I'd love to sit down and have a nice long chat with your mother."
For the record, Kathryn's mother was not someone the local teachers feared. She was a first-grade teacher in our district, and while considered just a bit odd by some of our parents, wasn't an unreasonable person and would have been appalled at her daughter's invoking of her name in the form of a threat to one of her daughter's teachers. I seriously doubt she ever heard a word about that day's conversation.
Also as a matter of record, Kathryn did not get the eighth-grade citizenship award. Claire got that. I got the eighth-grade outstanding academic student award. Megan got the Bank of America award, which was for overall performance as a student, an extra-curricular student, and member of the community. Because I'm someting of a braggart by nature, I will share that a single student was and still is at that school eligible for only one of the three major awards, and the top academic student for each gender was chosen by GPA before the other awards; the top academic student was therefore ineligible for either of the other two awards. i would not have been in serious contention for the citizenship award (behaviors such as bringing a proctology textbook to school for my book report didn't exactly place me in serious consideration as the outstanding female citizen of our grade), but for the all-around award, I probably would have edged Megan. But who really knows or cares?
Once families moved into our district, they didn't usually leave unless someone's parent got a professorship at a different university, which is what happened to Kathryn's father. Despite her not being my favorite person on the planet, I felt sorry for Kathryn, as no one likes changing schools for one's senior year of high school. I didn't stay in touch because we weren't close while we attended the same school so why would we make an effort to remain in contact while separated by a distance of a few hundred miles? Neither, though, were we mortal enemies.
Because other people I know did stay in closer touch with her, I do know that she has been admitted to law school for this year. I also know that she wasn't admitted to her first-choice law school. I certainly hope that she grew up a bit since that day of our argument in eighth grade. i hope she didn't do anything as stupid as to write "DO NOT TALK ABOUT ME BEHIND ME BACK!" in the upper margin of her application.