It was, of course, a popular mean girl who made my life miserable in middle school.
She made a point to ask me, in front of whatever audience she could rally around her, if I had attended the big party over the weekend. (I never had.) If I had found a boyfriend. (Nope.) If I even had a clue about the fantastic life that she and her friends led. (Not really.)
While her needling seemed like the end of the world when I was 11 and 12, it taught me to have a great deal of compassion for the marginalized as I grew up. I've wondered what happened to my young tormentor as the years passed. A new study out of the University of Virginia suggests she should have been nicer.
Published last month in the journal Child Development, it followed the "cool kids" from middle school for a decade. It's true what they say about peaking too young: The socially precocious teens in middle school fell lower on the social hierarchy by high school. And in their early 20s, they had more problems with drugs and alcohol, more trouble with the law and were less competent in their friendships.
What's surprising is that the middle school "fast-track," as measured in this study, seems tame compared to the images put forth in current pop culture. One of the markers identified middle schoolers who reported becoming seriously romantically involved at this age, as in making out with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but not going further than that.
"Some people might see that as normative at age 13, but that's actually very precocious," said Megan Schad, a co-author on the paper. The other measures looked at whether the teens had gotten in trouble for such things as skipping school, shoplifting, sneaking into movies or participating in minor vandalism. Lastly, those who cared a lot about appearances -- surrounding themselves with just the pretty ones -- and who expressed an extreme desire to be popular scored high on the study's scale. All of these behaviors were aggregated into one measure to gauge later outcomes.
The cool kids from the Virginia study, when compared with their peers at age 23, had a 45 percent greater rate of troubles with alcohol and marijuana use and a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior.
When children do things at 13 that would seem more age-appropriate for 16 and 17, that's a red flag for future problems that parents ought to take seriously, Schad said.
This type of risk-taking and look-at-me behavior may lead to a sort of "pseudomaturity:" an extreme desire to appear older and impress others without actually learning how to connect with them, she explained. It makes sense that teens who are preoccupied with appearances, rather than being a good friend, are likely to have trouble with friendships later in life.
"The majority, or the 'normal kids' from middle school, have outcomes in the long run that are healthier," she said. "If you got ignored during middle school, it's probably not a bad thing."
Fortunately, I was spared crushing isolation during those difficult years because I grew up with cousins who were my best friends. Plus, my parents enrolled me in weekend Islamic school, where a tight group of friends understood the cultural and religious restrictions my immigrant parents placed on my nonexistent social life. Those peers endured the same.
The study should serve as a warning to those who want their middle-schoolers to be popular. It may make those dark and angsty years easier to bear, but at what cost down the line?
As my own daughter ventures into the middle school abyss this year, I've reminded her: The most interesting people you meet as adults are typically survivors of a tortured middle-school experience.