Category - Friendship
Essay by Catherine Calvert

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 classes?

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.


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