Essay by Catherine
Beneath the play of a summer's
evening, as children wheel and shout, cluster together then spin off in
new formations, lie the friendships that form the pattern of their days.
In the country of childhood, there are many laws - determine almost
everything, where you stand in line, in what order you're picked for the
softball team, whether you are one of the gabbing girls at the lunch
table or alone at the end, picking at your peanut butter sandwich.
Ever-changing or fast forever, friendship yields some of childhood's
greatest joys - and torments. In the smoldering furnace of friendship,
children forge skills that will last a lifetime and the memories, good
or bad, that underlie them.
Children are quick to discover each other,
stretching out a small hand to the net child in the sandbox. And parents
are almost as quick to step in, with their own rules for toddler ties:
"Be nice!" "Don't hit!" "Don't bite!" "Share!" But the law of the jungle
wins out, especially when there's nothing as coveted as a toy in another
child's hand. Child psychologists say that toddlers watch each other
carefully before they join in play, taking a long look at who's doing
what, then sidling alongside and gradually merging in. And there begins
the craft of friendship: sizing up the situation and learning the ways
of the world through the small universe of the sandbox or the
housekeeping corner at nursery school. Even then, some children seem
blessed with qualities that make friendship easier; these few charm from
birth, with ways and wiles that make the world smile on them and others
seek them out. For some, though, shyness rules from the nursery, and as
they take their first tentative steps toward others, they are often spun
away, tone-deaf to the ways of friendship, off on the wrong foot, never
quite in the dance.
The sight of children in a playground, shouting as
they run, or standing clumped or solitary, still stops me when I see it,
and in a moment I am nine again in a new school, watching the patterns
at play. Bookish, bespectacled, awkward, with "Teacher's Pet" already
being chanted in my wake, I forded the playground as if it were
treacherous rapids - and, of course, it was. The hierarchy of the
playground was - and is - as rigid as any corporation's. There was the
Popular Girl and her satellites, pony tails swishing as they walked. The
Team Captain and his buddies, skirmishing with a football. The two quiet
girls, who kept close by the teacher and braided each other's hair. And
the mass in the middle, girls and boys who linked up and split apart by
the week, hanging from the monkey bars and skipping rope and chanting
rhymes I didn't know. And to me it all seemed impenetrable. I had the
wrong shoes. My thin pony tail didn't swish. My mother picked out my
dress. I had a lunch box, while everyone else carried brown paper bags.
So I learned against the chain-link fence, trying to look busy, and
listened to the happy shouts, and wished the day over.
In a day, a week, perhaps longer, came the
invitation to hold one end of the jump rope and later to join the lunch
table, with everyone scooching down a bit to make room and offering some
hot gossip about the Teacher's Lounge. Then the days took on a different
color. I know we must have studied math and put on plays and taken tests
- but the most vivid memories from those years are these grade school
friendships. Boys surely had their own whirl, their own buddies and
gangs and social codes; but their friendships seemed to be louder and
more physical and less demanding than ours. Girls' friendships were
gusty and shot through with intensity., intrigue, and rivalry. You'd
have your group, a coterie, who could fill up most of the lunch table,
giggle, about boys together, and go shopping on Saturdays. You probably
also had an inner group of three, but that was perilous, as mothers
everywhere warned: "Three is always two against one." But most
important, you had a best friend, for sleepovers and shared confidences,
for exchanging homework assignments and Archie comic books. Now and then
you'd fall out. Over what? Whether to play Monopoly or Scrabble. Whether
to draw horses or poodles. Or who are the last Milk Dud. And in a
moment, she was gone, slamming the screen door behind her, stomping down
the sidewalk and away, while upstairs, your tears were hot on the
pillow. Who would make the first phone call, before school on Monday,
that would put everything right? Somebody had to; otherwise; you'd see
your best friend sashaying down the hall with the second-best friend,
whispering behind her hand, while the rest of your friends took sides.
Finally, you'd meet by the jungle gym and make up, with a toe scuffling
the gravel, and make plans to go shopping on Saturday and then read each
others' diaries. And the sun shone again.
I remember floods of children ebbing and flowing
around the neighborhood, the little ones intermixed in their
friendships, the bigger boys and girls divided by gender. How many
clubhouses did we set up, each with the same hand-lettered sign "NO Boys
Allowed?" Ours, a tree house, held treasures within - three Nancy Drew
books, a tin of cookies, a flashlight - and was once defended by five
girls and an entire crop of crab apples delivered with a sharp accuracy.
That was good. Of course, much of what we were up to would have been
humiliating of discovered. Like the entire summer we spent pretending to
be horses, whinnying and cantering our way across the yard for hours,
until a turncoat younger sister told the boys, and we were raided.
Mocking neighs. Screams. Cries. "Go away!" "I'm telling!" These were the
sounds of crisis that brought mothers to the doorway or sweeping down
among us - but they cemented our friendships.
These days, it seems, children's lives are more
scheduled, there's less chance to meet up with the girl across the
street and spend Saturday digging a hole just to see how far you'd get.
What with ballet lessons and soccer league, math tutoring and parents'
caution, play dates are planned weeks in advance. Why put on a play in
the garage when the local drama group has its children's theater
And yet, I know that children's friendships, in
all their excess of joy and sorrow, are still the emotional touchstones
of their lives. "Mom, Kate is mad at me because I said I'd be her
partner at lunch, and the Georgia said she would, and I forgot and Kate
cried," my youngest laments when she comes home, and we debate the
merits of the case over milk and crackers. There are good times
("Jennifer says I'm her second-best friend!) and bad ("Charlotte says
only silly girls wear hair ribbons"). I listen, and nod, and repeat the
mother wisdoms I used to hear myself, about the Golden Rule and not
gossiping and trying to understand Kate's point of view, until she
storms off to her bedroom and says I'll never understand.
And I am silent, lost in the memories of Robyn and
Patty and Sharon and Susie, of slumber parties where the whispers lasted
till dawn, and phone calls that links the neighborhood before supper,
and the hectic rush to go back outside again and chase fireflies in the
twilight, hands clasped, true friends in a whirling world.