Written by Emily
Some things stay like stains on my memory. I’d like to forget them, wash them away, bleach them until they’re gone but they reappear again and again like ghosts.
I won’t forget the first time big kids refused to play with my boy at the playground. He walked up to them, wide-eyed and eager like he did everything then. They said, “No!” and took off, their laughter seemed to go on forever.
When he ran to me, I imagined popping heads off like dandelions while every bizzare insult my father ever uttered spewed out of me like a geyser: you don’t know your ass from your elbow, you have a face for slaps, you have the brains of a baked bean, you can’t shine sh…Well, you get it.
I didn’t say a word, but I scooped up my boy, still a toddler, and played with him with more enthusiasm than I’d ever played before, as if my life depended on it or at the very least my boy’s childhood.
It happened again. It’s the way it is on the playground sometimes.
So when I looked back at Chloe strapped into her carseat, her face wan and her lip quivering, I knew before I said, “Tell me about your day, babe.”
Tears rolled out of her eyes, the kind that can’t be tamed. She wasn’t in hysterics; she was hurt.
“I told them I was sorry. They told me to tell them I was sorry, so I did.”
“Sorry for what? What happened?”
“Nothing. I didn’t do anything. But they told me to say sorry if I wanted to play with them. And then they wouldn’t play with me anyway!”
Playgrounds from my childhood flashed like a dizzying strobe light in my mind: circles of giggling girls, girls clustered together under the slide, gaggles of whispering girls. Cliques. They’re terrifying in their secret code; passwords change by the minute. In one day, out the next. It’s maddening being on the outside, and sometimes it’s just as maddening on the inside. Girls. Not all girls. Some girls. Kids. Not all kids. Some kids.
Sadly, I can’t control it. Despite my best efforts, I can’t even control the devastated little one whimpering in the backseat.
When we finally got home, I gathered her pieces and dried her eyes.
“Don’t say you’re sorry if you don’t mean it.” You’re nobody’s puppet, Chlo, not even mine.
“But they told me to!”
“If it’s true that you did nothing wrong, then you shouldn’t apologize.”
I thought about the lifetime of apologies she’ll give, ones she’ll mean, ones she’ll pray will hold her intentions, ones she’ll hope will matter.
“‘I’m sorry’ is for when you really mean it.”
“I just wanted to play.”
I hugged her again.
With her head resting on my shoulder, I wanted to ask her if she really wanted to play with those (insert unsavory title here). I wanted to tell her that real friends don’t behave like (insert unsavory title here). But she did want to play. They are her friends. They’re five. They practice power like they practice their letters. They see just what their words can do, how their movements can isolate and embrace. They’re getting a taste for who they want to be. They’ll choose personalities and spin and stretch and move like they’re in dress-up clothes until they feel just right.
So I told her that. In words that she might understand…someday.
While it’s tempting to throw down with anyone in my path when one of my kids is on the receiving end of catty recess games, I know they’ve been on both sides. I’ve seen this power play in my house. It’s there in whispers or in hiding places where I don’t always catch it in time.
Egos and feelings get bruised and battered.
Chloe was fine the next day. She was all smiles after school. She was “in”, or she made her own “in” somewhere. It probably helped that I taught her the Vulcan Death Grip. Nah. I didn’t.
For the next 20 years, I’ll be crossing my fingers that my children choose to invite others rather than reject them. I’ll be hoping they dig deep to uncover the kind of confidence that gives them strength in the face of meanness.
And I’ll swallow my urge to lift weights until my bulging biceps are a real threat.