Balance of power

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a friend named Michelle who was a senior. I use the term “friend” loosely — we never did anything outside of school, and I’m pretty sure I never had her phone number. Actually, her name might not have been Michelle, now that I think about it…

Anyway. I was a sophomore, she was a senior, and I thought I was totally badass to be hanging out with her.

Let me get this out of the way right up front: I was a dork in high school. I got extremely good grades, I loved hanging out in the library before school, I didn’t have a curfew because I didn’t need one. I was a teacher’s pet. The kind of girl people sought out when they missed notes or forgot their homework.

Nothing about me was “badass.”

But I wanted to be. Here was this senior talking to me, hanging out with me, spending time with me. It felt good to be gossiping about people I didn’t even know, to make fun of other girls — older girls — and talk trash. I loved it.

One day, right before Christmas, she wanted to get back at another senior. Since it was a Catholic school, there were Christmas decorations everywhere, and the seniors had all decorated their lockers with wrapping paper and bows and things like that. The senior locker room looked like Santa’s workshop had exploded. Michelle wanted to trash this other girl’s locker, but seniors had a lot of the same classes, so she didn’t have any opportunity to take care of it privately.

So I did it for her.

I’m ashamed to admit that, now. I don’t even remember the name of the girl whose locker I trashed. I remember tearing up the paper and scrawling hateful things on the paper that was left. I remember that I was caught, and threatened with suspension (me!), and I heard that the girl was crying in the restroom for hours because she didn’t know why someone would do that to her.

Since I’d been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment all my life (hello, I was a dork), hearing about that made me feel terrible. I didn’t hang out with that senior again. And I wrote about a dozen notes apologizing.

It wasn’t until much later (like, now) that I started wondering what Michelle got out of that relationship. Why was she hanging out with a sophomore? Why was she getting a kid to do her dirty work?

See, I wasn’t the only one craving that balance of power. She liked being the older one. The influencer. You ever notice how people fall into those roles almost automatically? Master and apprentice. Mother and daughter or father and son. Big brother, little brother…you get it. There’s power and acceptance on both sides.

But there’s an implied responsibility in being older, and sometimes people fail to remember that, like Michelle. It’s not enough to be the older and cooler one. Dan Savage calls it the campground rule: if you’re in a relationship with someone younger and much less experienced, you have an obligation to leave that person in better shape than you found him or her. He’s talking about sex (come on, he’s Dan Savage), but it applies to all relationships in life. You know when you’re the master vs. the apprentice.

It’s hard to have to set a good example all the time. It’s easier to impress less experienced people with how “badass” you are. It feels good to have an acolyte, right? Who wants a student when they can be worshipped?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because a friend of mine was working a college internship for a woman just a few years older than she is. My friend is 19, her “employer” is in her early twenties. Pretty clear line, right? But the employer made some bad choices and encouraged some very inappropriate practices for a 19 year old. She — the employer — wanted to impress her interns with how “worldly” and “experienced” she was.

Unfortunately, she didn’t come off as badass.

She just came off like an ass.


5 thoughts on “Balance of power

  1. I just can’t imagine you being a bully. At all. But I look back at some of the things I did when I was younger just for the sake of having someone think I was cool, and I feel like I need to enter a 12-step program and start making those apology phone calls.

    This was a great post and every word true. It’s a good reminder for what it means to be a parent as well, and why we need to *be* our kids’ parent and not their friend.

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