Girls Just Want to Be Mean
New York Times
, February 24, 2002
By Margaret Talbot
Today is Apologies Day in Rosalind Wiseman's class -- so, naturally, when class lets out, the girls are crying. Not all
12 of them, but a good half. They stand around in the corridor, snuffling quietly but persistently, interrogating one
another. ''Why didn't you apologize to me?'' one girl demands. ''Are you stressed right now?'' says another. ''I am so
stressed.'' Inside the classroom, which is at the National Cathedral School, a private girls' school in Washington,
Wiseman is locked in conversation with one of the sixth graders who has stayed behind to discuss why her newly
popular best friend is now scorning her.
''You've got to let her go through this,'' Wiseman instructs. ''You can't make someone be your best friend. And it's
gonna be hard for her too, because if she doesn't do what they want her to do, the popular girls are gonna chuck her
out, and they're gonna spread rumors about her or tell people stuff she told them.'' The girl's ponytail bobs as she
nods and thanks Wiseman, but her expression is baleful.
Wiseman's class is about gossip and cliques and ostracism and just plain meanness among girls. But perhaps the
simplest way to describe its goals would be to say that it tries to make middle-school girls be nice to one another.
This is a far trickier project than you might imagine, and Apologies Day is a case in point. The girls whom Wiseman
variously calls the Alpha Girls, the R.M.G.'s (Really Mean Girls) or the Queen Bees are the ones who are supposed
to own up to having back-stabbed or dumped a friend, but they are also the most resistant to the exercise and the
most self-justifying. The girls who are their habitual victims or hangers-on -- the Wannabes and Messengers in
Wiseman's lingo -- are always apologizing anyway.
But Wiseman, who runs a nonprofit organization called the Empower Program, is a cheerfully unyielding presence.
And in the end, her students usually do what she wants: they take out their gel pens or their glittery feather-topped
pens and write something, fold it over and over again into origami and then hide behind their hair when it's read
aloud. Often as not, it contains a hidden or a not-so-hidden barb. To wit: ''I used to be best friends with two girls. We
weren't popular, we weren't that pretty, but we had fun together. When we came to this school, we were placed in
different classes. I stopped being friends with them and left them to be popular. They despise me now, and I'm sorry
for what I did. I haven't apologized because I don't really want to be friends any longer and am afraid if I apologize,
then that's how it will result. We are now in completely different leagues.'' Or: ''Dear B. I'm sorry for excluding you
and ignoring you. Also, I have said a bunch of bad things about you. I have also run away from you just because I
didn't like you. A.'' Then there are the apologies that rehash the original offense in a way sure to embarrass the