Hanging out around kids so much prods my own childhood memories to return, disturbingly uncensored.
A few days ago, we came across a dodgeball game at an elementary school playground next to where we’d parked. Boobaby peered through the fence, intrigued by the aggression with which these 10-year olds were hurling rubber balls at each other. You just know she wants to try it, too.
The game had gotten weirdly violent, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. The tough kids had taken over and were marshalling rows of the less-able to protect them. Bizarrely, there were two teachers looking on acquiescently. This wasn’t normal recess hijinks: the melee was part of the kids’ physical education curriculum.
Trying to stay out of the killing square was a doughy-looking boy. On this hot day, he was dressed in a turtleneck sweater and had his long pants pulled up high. That sideline boy, at one point in my history, was me. I wasn’t ever athletic; I was always picked close to last for teams, although not absolutely last, because what I lacked in brawn I made up for in brawny friends. (“Don’t want to pick me for your game? Well, then, Andy Appleton is going to kick your ass for me!”) This kid didn’t seem to have any protectors, least of all the resigned-looking teachers.
As he pretended not to notice, the “Nail the Losers” version of dodgeball continued around him. And if no teachers were nearby, that would almost be fine. I myself played “Smear the Queer” with the other kids long before I knew what it meant — I assumed “queer” meant “holding the ball” for the longest time. I don’t think I was alone in that mistake since, in fact, everyone wanted to be queer.
We were awfully liberal kids with liberal parents in a liberal town, and yet we were playing a game named after gay bashing. The crucial point, though, is that we were smearing each other without teachers watching. We all knew that we were being naughty (although we probably missed the boat on the implications of hate speech), and we’d have cut it out if an adult walked up.
Kids can’t avoid playground politics, and you wouldn’t want them to. But they should also know that adults are there to protect them from the worst of the other kids’ tribalism. When a grownup is present and not doing anything to curb the natural but horrifying tendencies of children, bullies get the utmost reward: the tacit approval of authority.
So I pulled Boo away and loaded her into the car, all these thoughts were spinning in my head. I didn’t really know how to explain it all to her, except to say this: “Boobaby, when you’re older, don’t be a jerk.”
I don’t think I have to worry too much.