"You should call her." Mom advised a much younger Katie. I think I was in 4th grade and I was having trouble with a girl we'll call Jill. Jill was pretty and blonde and athletic and she was one of many gossipy girls in my class of 40 of so rural students. We were friends, I thought, having secured a coveted invitation to her house after school. I rode the bus - something that left me wide-eyed and a bit scared since I was used to the short walk to the single-story brick schoolhouse - and we walked to her house behind her older brother. We talked and played games and probably made fun of other people in our class. I don't really remember.
I do recall crying at home one evening, having been hurt by being insulted or ignored - I can't exactly remember that either. It really was a terribly cliquey environment - being so small and isolated - and I was even more dramatic in grade school than I am now. I think - and let's say this happened just for the sake of my story - that Jill said something to Mandy about me. Then Mandy reported that Jill didn't like me and had been talking about me. I never wanted anyone to talk about me so Mom, during our after dinner ritual of doing dishes together, was subject to my emotional outpouring over this tragic event.
"I can't call her!" I said. "She talked about me! She obviously hates me. What would I say?!"
Mom shrugged and regarded me with sympathy. "I don't know why she talked about you, but the only way I can think of to find out is to ask her. Just ask if she doesn't like you or if you did something to hurt her feelings. Usually people who are mean are hurting somehow. So if you find out why she wants you to feel badly, maybe you can help her feel better. And that helps you too."
I picked up the phone at her urging and looked at her, frowning with great fear. She encouraged me, sitting down and waiting while I dialed.
Jill answered and with my eyes locked on my mother's, I blurted out, "Why don't you like me?" Then I started to cry. Mom made the sympathetic face that I often mimic now upon seeing someone do something silly that I somehow understand. We kind of scrunch one side of our mouths and wince a bit. Oh, I think, I probably would have done the same thing, but that's not a good move there.
There are a couple of things that I learned from that exchange. The most important is that people who create misery are often very unhappy. So one should treat mean people with a certain amount of sympathy, but also be very careful around them. Having been depressed myself, I can state that it's too easy to drag people around you down. I was, at times, selfish and unkind and uncaring about any unhappiness that I created around me.
The second is that confrontation is valuable, but uncomfortable. Jill stuttered and stammered while I wept copiously, finally gasping out that I heard she'd talked about me and I'd never talked about her and I thought we were friends! "Why don't you like me?"
"I like you." She finally said. And I hung up, facing Mom, more confused than when I started. She, perhaps slightly bewildered that my sometimes mature and intelligent facade had washed away in a storm of tears, gave me a hug and patted my back. Then she started to talk and imparted the third lesson.
"Katie," she said slowly, thinking as she talked, "some people just aren't meant to be your friends. I don't know why, but some people won't like you. Sometimes it'll be something you said or did, and sometimes it'll be harder to figure out. But there are always other people who will like you and who won't talk about you. You just have to wait until you find the right girls who will be true friends. And try not to be so hurt and surprised when the wrong girls treat you in a way that's not so nice. It's hard, growing up."
Mom was right, though it took me some time to believe it. Jill and I had a love/hate relationship over the next few years. In high school, there were finally enough people that we separated from the small groups and merged into the larger population that was more peaceful for me. I could fly under the radar, mostly unnoticed except for academic achievements and non-athletic activities. I think Jill had a couple of children, but I didn't keep up after we graduated and I went off to college. All was eventually well.
Except that feeling still pops up. In the current environment, I've heard - many times - something that a professor has said about a trainee. Whether secondhand or directly, I'm aware that if they talk about others, they talk about me.
The poster sessions during the retreat - one of which contained an offering of mine - were very well attended. The hour flew by amidst nearly constant visitors in my little corner. People I'd seen and not met mostly, though there were a few strangers as well. I happily answered questions and asked some of my own, comfortable and engaged in conversation. Yet the major professors - those with all the control and funding - skipped over my poster, stopping to glance over the small crowd that had gathered before moving on. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't relieved. Those guys scare me. But still. They don't like me.
At another poster session, I was standing next to Steve, discussing data analysis and summer travel plans. The SPB approached and gave Steve a couple of instructions for the next session, then stood next to us for a moment, looking around. He left with a single nod in my direction, not returning my smile. In the few seconds before he walked away, I opened my mouth to ask why he didn't like me. I closed it softly, then smiled at Steve when he walked away to note his orders. Wandering back to my seat, I considered my response.
Asking someone a direct question like that - in my experience - creates more discomfort than anything. It's awkward, and in my situation, it's unnecessary. For numerous reasons, I won't be staying to try to make this work. If I were, I'm not sure what my next move would be. Luckily, I don't need to figure it out. I do wonder - what I've done or said or not done that triggered this odd disdain and disinterest with those faculty members. But it's just not meant to be.
It's not overwhelming either. I'm talking about 2 particular men here, but both are brilliant and powerful and they loom huge in my consciousness. There are other professors who are friendly, answering questions and stopping readily when I asked if we could discuss something. I also have an incredibly supportive group of guys in my department and I feel completely at ease when talking with them about matters both professional and personal.
It took me until college to find true friends - women who would accept and love me, and only talk about me when they were concerned. The genuine friendship I experienced when I finally found it convinced me that the right place - the right people - are worth the search. When it's good, I know it. It's not scary to confront one of my girls, ask for favors or apologize when I've screwed up. They were and are amazing women - I'm rather awed that I get to know them. I have confidence that eventually I'll find that amazing work environment.
It's close sometimes - there are elements that are delightful and those when I feel absolutely blessed to be here. But I don't like the feeling I recall from elementary school upon facing some of these people.