How I Found Kind

05/19/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016
Rachel Levy Lesser

This past weekend, I witnessed something (or really took part in something) pretty amazing and right here in my own town (or really. in my own town's independent movie theater). I sat with 300 other women and girls as we all took a break from our Sunday afternoon obligations (soccer games, lacrosse tournaments, dance practices, grocery stores, laundry rooms and the like) to be brought into a very scary, a very real and still what I still believe to be a very hopeful place -- into girl world.

We sat together in near silence, transfixed by the independent film Finding Kind, the brain child and production of Lauren Parsekian and Molly Stroud, two friends and first-time filmmakers who met at Pepperdine University and who were victims of mean girls back when they were in middle school and high school. Their personal experience with girl-on-girl bullying inspired them to take a road trip. They covered 10,000 miles, talked to over 30,000 girls and visited more than 60 U.S. cities, setting up truth booths and capturing memories and confessions on film from girls across the country who had all experienced mean girl behavior, whether on the giving or receiving end. Every single girl (and woman) in the film was affected by this behavior. And as I looked around at the audience, I could see that each of us watching the film had been affected too.

Some of us cried as we heard these stories of mean girls, of cat fights, of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Some of us smiled as we witnessed stories of hope and apologies and sisterhood, friendship and the ability that we have to somehow find the kind we have in ourselves. As playwright and author Linda Daugherty so aptly said on camera, "We may not all be beautiful, we not all be smart, we not all be talented but we can all be kind." I won't soon forget those words.

Three kind women in my town understood the power of those words and worked tirelessly to bring the film to our community. In another time or place, these three women may have been pitted against each other as they are local business owners and some would say run competing businesses. These women, however, do not see the others as the competition but rather as friends and allies. In fact, they have even called their respective Yoga and Barre studios "sister studios."

As I watched these women -- Laura Rothstein, Lauren Ziel and Eleni Pappas -- introduce us, their very captive audience, to the world of Finding Kind, it became clear that we could all be a bit kinder, both to ourselves and to each other.

Here's the thing: I've always thought of myself as a kind person, and I've also been really lucky to be surrounded by very kind female friends. I feel so blessed to have maintained so many strong female friendships and for such a long time. This mean girl thing -- it seemed a bit foreign to me. That is, until I watched the film.

As I watched these very raw and real stories on the screen in front of me, I was shocked, but maybe not totally surprised to hear of one girl who was scared to walk down the hall in school for fear of being pushed into a locker, or the woman who explained how her 9-year-old daughter said to her one day, "Mom, I wish I was dead." And the young woman who said through tears that she had been one of the best friends she could have been to anyone and she'd just love to have a friend like that for herself. That one hit me -- hard.

Isn't that what we all want? To have maybe just one good friend, someone who has your back and who will treat you in the way that you want to be treated? To give you unconditional love and support, no matter what you are going through? So while I don't pretend to have experienced the mean girl trauma anywhere near to the degree that many of the girls in the film had, I must admit that I have definitely been affected by it. And like many of the girls in the film, I now understand that I have been on both ends of it -- both the giving and receiving.

While I'm ashamed to admit it now, I was not so nice to another girl in the 8th grade. I told someone else that this girl had no friends and it got back to her, and it really hurt her. I saw it. I'm not even sure why I said those mean words. Perhaps it was because I was insecure at my new school and longed to be a part of a certain group of girls. The funny thing is that I don't ever think of that group of girls that I was trying to get in with, but I do sometimes think about that girl who I negatively talked about. I wonder what she is up to now. If I could talk to her again now almost 30 years later, I'd tell her how sorry I was for saying something so thoughtless and hurtful. Maybe we could have been friends? Maybe we would still be friends today?

As I sat in that dark theater, I also recalled how I had also been on the receiving end of mean girl behavior, years later as a young woman in graduate school. There was another girl a year ahead of me, who for whatever reason really didn't like me. (One of her friends told me it was because I was already coupled off and was in fact a young married grad student while this other girl was searching for a boyfriend.) Regardless, she was not nice to me, said mean things about me behind my back and instead of helping me as an experienced grad student, she made life harder for me as a first-year. It felt really bad, and those feelings came right back to me in the theater. What also came to me was the realization that instead of trying to work things out with her, I was just as not nice right back to her. Of course now, as a 41-year-old grown woman, I recognize that I wasn't in such a great place at the time. My mother was dying while I was in grad school, and as her cancer grew, so did my anger. I was mad at the world and just about anyone at any given moment.

That understanding came to me so clearly as I heard the words of one woman in the film whose daughter had experienced girl on girl bullying: "Even if they are not nice to you, you don't know their story. Don't assume you do."

The truth is that none of us know the story of every person that we come into contact with, and we really shouldn't make any assumptions. Having said that, I also understand what another woman in the film said in that we shouldn't be expected to all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" in unison, but we can be kinder. I can certainly be kinder, and I will try to. I really will. After the film ended, we were asked to make a kind pledge and a kind apology in hopes of building a kinder girl world.

I didn't make my pledge and apology right there as my brain was flooded with so many memories and my heart with lots of emotions too. So I sat with my little pieces of kind paper later that night after everyone in my house had gone to bed. Here it is, here it goes:

I kindly pledge to stop gossiping; to go easier on others because I don't always know what they are going through; to go easier on myself for mistakes in my past and for those mistakes that I will surely make again. To work hard to raise a kind daughter and be a kind role model for her.

I apologize to the girls and women who I have hurt (whether knowingly or unknowingly). I'm sorry if I talked badly about you, did not include you in something or made assumptions about you, your life or your situation. I hope you can accept my apology even if it is long overdue.