That time I finally brought up an eighth grade birthday party thrown without me
Middle school, or whatever they call it where you’re from, is the horrible part of your youth when you’re between 11 and 13 years old, collectively learning how to exist. You’re not a kid anymore, but you’re certainly not an adult, and no one seems to know how they’re supposed to act yet.
Most of my memories from that time, which are dominated by trips to the mall and bad clothing choices, are hazy and unclear. However, there is one memory that stands out: a ridiculous story from when I was in middle school, the gist of which can be summed up in one relatively short sentence. When I was in eighth grade, my friends threw a birthday party for me, without me.
That’s the short version, but the real story is a bit more complicated. That year, I had submitted a play I had written to my school, and the drama department chose to put on for the spring show. The play was called The Toast Stops Here, and it was about a class of middle schoolers who become addicted to a game on their calculators, which turned — unintentionally, I swear — into a sloppy metaphor for the overuse of cellphones.
It was a comedy, and I’m certain it was terrible. I mean, it was written by a 12 year old, and I’m pretty sure there was a reference to Flappy Bird in it. But at the time, it was my greatest accomplishment. While this was happening, my small group of friends decided to throw a party for my 13th birthday at our friend’s house. As it turned out, the party ended up being on the same day as the closing night of my play.
I wanted to move the party to another day, but they refused. Most of the pro-party campaign was led by my friend Julia, with the decision revolving around the scheduling of a bouncy slide that was going to be at the party. There was a massive fight in our text message group chat, and in the end, we decided that the birthday party would continue while my friend Olivia and I went to the play, and I would go to the party afterward.
The story itself is absurd. But at the time, it was earth shattering, and without allowing myself to be simply angry about it, I stewed for years. Although it seems ridiculous to be upset about what happened so long ago, I allowed myself to indulge just this once.
So I called up my old friends from middle school and asked them, with just a little bit of nostalgic hostility, why did you skip my play and go to my birthday party without me all those years ago? Surprisingly, by lifting the lid off the can of salacious prepubescent drama, I learned a few things about my friendships and myself along the way.
The first person I talked to was Katie*. We met in fourth grade in an after-school program and we have stayed friends since. I remember her as a small and intelligent kid with a tendency of getting food stuck in her braces. Today, she’s at university, and the braces are long gone.
When I brought up the play, Katie remembered me writing it, but then I described the fight about the birthday party.
“Oh my god, I don’t remember that,” she said.
“You don’t remember that?” I asked.
“I remember the day that you told us you were selected to write the play, but I don’t remember the play actually happening and I don’t remember the birthday party.”
“Okay, well, yeah, you don’t remember the play because nobody went,” I said, laughing.
“Yeah, I probably wasn’t there,” she said.
This was genuinely shocking to me. The fight about the birthday party makes up roughly a third of my clear memories of middle school, with my brain apparently deeming the rest of it unimportant.
Though I knew the event was more significant to me than to my friends, I legitimately thought that it would be somewhat important to them, even anticipated that they would still try to justify their actions in the same way they had at the time. I’d assumed that they were somehow still as caught up in this adolescent argument as I was.
Katie’s lack of memory shifted my view of the entire incident, as I realized just how caught up in the drama I really was. I moved on to asking the main thing I wanted to know: “why did you throw my birthday party without me?”
“Yeah that’s honestly a very good question and I cannot answer that,” she said. “I’m so sorry that it happened, and if I had, like, anything to do with that, I would probably hate myself if I met that person today.”
In total fairness, it was nice to hear an apology, even though I knew she has no memory of any of it. I’m aware of how silly it is to bring this up so many years later, but I also appreciate the acknowledgment of how hurtful it was at the time.
“I have noticed that in the past… I remember something so vividly that my friends don’t, for better or for worse, just because it didn’t have the same impact on them,” she said. I suppose this is the crux of the issue. For me, the play was the most significant accomplishment that I’d ever had, and the most frustrated and betrayed I’d ever felt. For others, it was a birthday party with a bouncy water slide.
Next, I spoke with Emma*, an athletic, curly haired girl who I recalled always wore her hair up. Emma remembered the whole drama fairly well, after a few pointers from me.
“I remember just the inflatables,” she said. The water slide was something that came up repeatedly in my friends’ memories.
“She just labelled it as a birthday party for you, but why it clashed with your play, I don’t know,” she said. She remembered the fight surrounding the party as “heated” and said she hadn’t wanted to get involved. She was surprised Katie didn’t remember it.
In general, she remembered there being a lot of drama within our friend group during middle school. “We all started reading The Clique books, and Julia… was so inspired by Massie,” she said.
The Clique was a series that came out in 2004, following a group of incredibly rich middle school girls who called themselves “The Pretty Committee,” or TPC for short. It was basically Gossip Girl for middle schoolers, with relentless references to designer brands and instant messaging. The characters, especially Massie, the leader of the so-called ‘clique,’ were purposefully painted as shallow, vindictive, and generally just awful.
When re-watching the movie, I was shocked by just how ruthlessly Massie and her friends bullied the main character based only on the fact that her family wasn’t rich. To any adult watching, it’s clear that you should not act the way Massie is acting. And throughout the series, she never seemed to get any nicer or to truly learn any lessons.
On the other hand, the series paints Massie as someone with immense power and respect among her friends. She’s popular, impeccably dressed, and always has a witty line ready for anyone who doubts her. At the beginning of the movie, when Massie is told she can’t go to a party, she declares: “if I have to miss this, everyone has to miss this,” and proceeds to call up her friends to stop them from going to the party.
What middle school girl doesn’t want that sort of influence and confidence? It’s an age where you don’t have power over anything in your life — you even have to ask for an adult’s permission if you want to go to the bathroom during school. It’s hard to be confident in anything you do, much less your friendships.
Next, I spoke to Julia for more answers. As I mentioned, she was a leader of the pro-party campaign. Today, she’s my closest friend from high school and the person I’ve spent the most time on the phone with throughout the pandemic.
She’s small and looks sweet but has a sarcastic edge that can come off as unkind to the untrained ear. She likes to refer to this tendency as “Blunt Julia,” which I swear is more endearing if you know her.
I started out asking if she remembered any stories of something a friend did to her in middle school that upset her.
“I think I was the instigator sometimes,” she said. “Like, a lot of the time.” This made me laugh, because it was just what I had heard from the others. Not that she was the instigator but that she always seemed to be involved, which seems to say the same thing. This acknowledgement was good to hear but also made me feel odd thinking about the times when I’d participated as well. As for the party, she remembered the whole event.
“We were, like, really into the bouncy house,” she laughed, “so we were all just like, ‘oh, she can come after the play.’ ”
“So, you’re saying that the bouncy house was a main factor in this decision?” I suggested.
“I think so.”
“Was there any thought of like… maybe you should come see my play?” I asked.
“Yeah, I felt really guilty, actually, about not going to your play, but at the same time I was like … ‘damn, plays are super boring.’ ”
“So, you not wanting to sit through the whole thing was another factor?” I asked. She laughed guiltily.
“Yeah… I mean, I was 13-ish right? I mean, I was just being rude and a dumbass.”
The incident wasn’t significant in her memory of middle school, though she claims she hasn’t thought much about middle school since middle school. She remembered being inspired by The Clique.
“That’s why I was so mean — I did not realize that that book series was supposed to be satire.” She went so far as to post ‘in and out’ lists on her blog, which listed people and things as ‘in’ or ‘out,’ something taken directly from the book. “Yeah, I tried to get the font right and everything, and I would write people’s names on it and post that to my blog! That’s bullying, 100 per cent.”
She attributed some of her actions to budding mental illness, which grew into intense social anxiety as we moved into high school. I’m sympathetic to this, having seen her struggle for years and knowing that she put in tremendous effort to better herself. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that the effects of her actions shouldn’t be acknowledged. We might not make those same decisions today, but that doesn’t mean that the effects weren’t real and lasting for those you might have hurt.
Months later, when I brought up the incident again, she apologized more formally, saying that she had in fact felt somewhat defensive when I brought it up. Honestly, I didn’t need the apology at that point, but it was nice to hear.
I later spoke with Olivia, my one ally in the whole event and the one who went with me to the play. Today, she’s an art student with a penchant for altering her clothes and spiking her hair.
When I asked her if she remembered any drama from our friend group middle school, she brought up the incident with the play with no prompting from me. She was just as indignant about it as we both were at 13. “I remember… it was like so stupid. Because it was like your birthday party, for you, that you were not going to be at because you wrote a full play! It was getting performed!”
“Like, there was nothing about that that was actually about supporting you,” she said, later adding, “I think they just didn’t want to go see the play.”
I’m not kidding when I say I’ve held onto my anger over this since eighth grade. It’s silly, but it was validating to hear that much of the reason my friends didn’t go to my play was probably because they didn’t want to see it.
What hurt the most was the perception that my friends didn’t acknowledge or care about this thing I’d done that I was so proud of. I remember looking forward to seeing everyone’s reactions as what I’d written was translated to the stage, and I pictured my birthday party to be a celebration of that accomplishment.
I don’t fault my friends for their actions in the least, but as soon as I allowed myself to acknowledge the leftover emotions I never let go of, I stopped being angry. Pretending, just for a little while, that it’s okay to be pissed off about something that happened when I was 13 allowed me to actually work through the anger, which I hadn’t done before.
Hearing my friends’ memories of the events made the whole conflict into what it should have been all along: a funny story about a bunch of dramatic middle schoolers who grew up to be really great adults.
So, to anyone that I went to middle school (or even high school) with, I apologize. Feel free to confront me. I can’t promise that I’ll remember it, but I can try to make amends.
Names have been changed for privacy.
Cover visual: FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY