I used to think my sister was the meanest girl in all of St. James Catholic School. She slightly resembled a tree-a tall slender body that towered over me, topped with a crown of hair that frizzed into the atmosphere like Tina Turner’s mane mid-show. I on the other hand was short and nearly bald; one of the chosen ones who got to carry baby chub all the way through the seventh grade. Going to the uniform store was the worst day of the year; not because it signaled the end of summer but because it marked the beginning of school-humiliation season. Perri always got sized first. “How does it fit?” Perri would skip out of the dressing room and courtesy for the pretend audience. “Darling,” the old seamstress doted, “what about a headband to go along with it?” After her performance it was my turn. The woman at Flynn O’Hara always commented on the agony over trying to zip up the back of my pleated jumper. “Ugh, next size up please,” she hollered to the back. Perri would chime in, “Jeeeez, Dana, if it weren’t for you we could have left by now.”
My sister never failed to remind me of my roundness or any other imperfection, especially in public spaces. Everyday when we waited for my Grandparents in the afternoon pick-up line, she would pinch my cheeks together and exhibit my funny face to all of the other kids, searching for any amusement as they waited a ride home. “Doesn’t she look like a chipmunk?” My sister would laugh, tossing her braids over her shoulders and squeezing my face. I always giggled alongside them, convincing myself that there was something endearing about being able to chuckle with the big kids.
Perri and I laugh about all of this now. She still refers to me as “her little chipmunk,” often underscoring the once mocking nickname by telling me I am too sensitive. Though this all relates to why I began with some of my own experiences. I resonated with the broadcast “The Cruelty of Children” from This American Life. It raises questions about why children, and people for that matter, are so cruel to each other. Though—to me the real theme wasn’t so much about darkened souls or malicious middle-schoolers; but a desire to belong—and doing whatever it took for acceptance. As evidenced in both Sedaris’ narrative and the short story: “The Man in the Well,” it seems as though kids simply do what their peers do—following the status quo. The establishment of the rule in the final part demonstrates this same behavior (though more optimistic). This is nothing new for our minds–but I wonder why we continue to grapple with this over and over again.
I find a great irony in all of this. As we praise children for their creativity and their ability to say whatever they are thinking; see things through an untainted lens; we note their cruelty and lack of hesitation to be mean to one another. Blame it on insecurity, bluntness or whatever else you may, but I think a lot of it must deal with the example being set for them.
My sister is my best friend, and despite all of our sibling rivalry, she was always my best friend. She knows me better than anyone else, which is why she is also so good at getting under my skin. Now we joke about it, but the moments when she unleashed her most brutal, hurtful comments (and pinches) happened to be around the same time my parents teetered on the edge of their divorce. I am not blaming my parents for the trials and tribulations of our sisterhood, but I do think there is some correlation between my sister’s defensiveness and all the confusion she was really experiencing on her own. Perri would probably tell me I am reading too far into it all, and maybe I am, but I think a lot of our negativity towards others stems from fear. We saw it with the little boy on the bus, Sedaris and his peers, and the children surrounding the well—and often times I still see it in myself.