Gossip - a lethal disease that is infecting communities everywhere. It is a disease that wears many faces, has no age restriction or economic expectation. It is everywhere and it is destroying countless lives.
Teenagers are notorious for gossiping about each other. Too often because of jealousy and/or envy, they engage in conversations that contain a sliver of truth or no truth at all. They repeat things out of context or state them as absolute fact with no regard for the cast of characters involved.
Too often they don't stop to think of the consequences of their verbal carelessness until they themselves have become victims of their reckless social behavior.
Over the last few months, I have heard of countless fights that began in verbal altercations and led to physical assaults among teenage boys and girls based on gossip spread by a single teenager.
Some gossip has been so lethal that it has led to the destruction of people's property. Our technological highway, with its' ever growing chat rooms, has been another venue for destroying the character and integrity of another.
As I was thinking about how destructive gossip can be, I could not help but remember an experience I had as a junior high school principal back in the mid seventies.
A new family moved into the community and approached me about enrolling their daughter in our eighth grade. It was October. As a general policy, we did not usually accept eighth graders, since our junior high was sixth through eighth grade. In a few months, this new student would have to make another transition.
The student in question was bright and had been educated her whole life in Catholic school. After interviewing her, she seemed very equipped to deal with the issues around such a transition. She was accepted and placed in Eight B - there were two sections of eighth grade.
Her classmates were excited to welcome a new student into their midst. The boys were especially excited to welcome a new female student.
Initially, the transition seemed to be going exceptionally well. From her first day in early October through early November, T really blended in. She seemed to make friends quickly. She was bright, an athlete and just an all around nice girl.
By the second week in November she was complaining of not feeling well. She had started to lose weight. Her Mom took her to her local physician. He did some preliminary tests and found nothing. He suggested she see a pediatric specialist at Washington's Children's Hospital. He immediately hospitalized her.
She was in the hospital for a little more than a week and had every test imaginable. All the test results were negative. One afternoon her Mom was visiting and all of a sudden T started to cry uncontrollably.
Finally, through that conversation the missing piece emerged that helped to explain why she was feeling so poorly and was losing weight.
During the second week in her new school, T was in the girls' room. She was in a stall and a group of popular eighth grade girls were in the bathroom talking up a storm. They started talking about the new girl and how all the popular boys were "ga ga" about her because she was attractive, athletic and just plain nice. One of the more vocal girls started talking about T as being a tease and that she had heard T was a slut who slept around.
Needless to say, T took all of that in and was devastated. She could not believe what she heard. She had not even dated, never mind been intimate with a boy. She could not believe how these girls could be gossiping about her, when from her perspective she did nothing wrong. All she did was transfer into their school and try to be friendly and nice.
After much prodding, T finally told her mother who the girls were. Her Mom called me immediately and I had a meeting with every girl in question. I told them what I had heard. They were shocked and embarrassed. I felt compelled to tell them how I heard and what this gossip triggered in an innocent person's life.
The eighth grade girls involved were good kids from good families. They were genuinely ashamed of what their conversation provoked. They never intended for T to hear what they had said. It was a painful, but powerful learning experience for all involved.
Children are not born gossipers. That is an unfortunate deviant behavior that they learn from adults. Unfortunately, it happens too often among older people and they don't even realize how destructive their comments can be.
How often I have heard teenagers complain that their parents have put down their friends based on very shallow, external observations like how a teenager is dressed or the fact that a teenager has extensive body piercings and/or tattoos. Comments are made publicly that border on slander and the adult has never spoken to the teenager and knows nothing about him or her except that they don't like his or her look.
The positive aspect of a small community is the camaraderie and sense of closeness among neighbors, especially in times of need. The down side of small communities is the infectious gossip where parents unconsciously with other parents put down children they don't like and repeat stories that are hearsay. Equally as destructive is when school personnel reach out to students, gain their confidence and hear things they don't want to know. They break a students' confidence and negative things are shared out of context without said student's permission. That information becomes part of the gossip that unbeknownst to the adults becomes lethal and destroys a young persons confidence and willingness to trust adults.
When we were kids, my Irish Catholic mother used to say "if you don't have something good to say about another, then it is better to say nothing at all," - a concept that needs to be revived!