Middle School is all about gossip.

It’s where gossip began for me, anyway.

I never engaged in it, but I felt the energy of my schoolmates as they talked about me and then noticed I’d walked into a room.

It was a horrid feeling at the pit of my stomach, knowing that people who pretended to like me liked talking about me behind my back even more.

You have two choices when you hear gossip: you can participate or you can politely decline.

I was back at the middle school in Palos Verdes again today, with the same Integrated Science class as yesterday.

I was walking around the classroom, monitoring progress when I noticed the back sink was clogged.

I asked, “why is the sink clogged? This will attract mosquitoes.”

One of the students, a very outspoken, colorful girl, said, “I don’t know, she probably dumps her Botox in there.”

My shocked facial expression was the cause of uproar among the entire class.

“Botox?” I asked, still not believing what she’d said aloud.

“Yeah Ms., she’s got botox and implants for sure and everybody knows it, and it looks like she got her cheekbones done. She looks like a Barbie doll that got left out in the sun with her melty face.”

More laughter, and even some words of agreement with the student’s observations.

She continued, “she looks like an eighty-year-old who’s trying to look twenty. And then, when she tries to get our attention, she gets out of her seat and does this,” and imitated her teacher in an ultra diva pose. A student laughed and said, “that’s exactly how she does it!”

I stood there, remembering the time I caught one of my so-called friends imitating the way I walked, talked and all of my mannerisms while I silently walked back into my classroom from the bathroom, while the entire class, including my teacher, sat and watched, so thoroughly entertained they didn’t notice that I was also present.

When she finally noticed I was watching her, she grew embarrassed and tried to apologize but I laughed and said “No! Continue. I want to see how well you can get me down.”

Awkwardly, she continued her little show and when she was finished, she humbly sat and I also took my place at my desk.

Returning from my quick reverie, I looked at my student in front of me, and decided on what to say.

I told her, “You know what, I believe that we shouldn’t say things about people unless they are present and able to defend themselves.”

“She’s not nice to us, Ms. C,” she quipped.

“Nevertheless,” I answered, “ I really think that if you’re talking about someone behind their back—”

“You should say it to their face instead?” She finished.

“Well, yes, but what I meant to say was that when someone is talking about someone else in front of you, they’re probably talking about you in front of others when you’re not around, too. And honestly, you talking about her just doesn’t make me feel good inside.”

She apologized earnestly. “I’m sorry, Ms. C. You’re just a good person.”

“I try to be. And honestly, we don’t need more Mean Girls in the world.”

I honestly believe that these kids disclose to me more than they typically would to a teacher, maybe because I’m young and they don’t see me as an “adult” yet, and I allow those moments of trust to become teachable moments, not just for them but for me, too. By teaching them that gossip is hurtful, even when the person you gossip about isn’t around, I also resolve the hurt I felt when I was gossipped about, both in my school years as well as in my more recent past.

It takes courage and tact to confront someone when their words are unnecessary, unkind, or untrue. But I’m just looking out for the little girls, including my own daughter, who will be enduring this environment and its rites of passage.

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