Four fifth grade girls stood in a tight circle at the four square court. Arms folded and jaws tight, they leaned in, cutting sideways glances toward a stout ten year old named Wanda. Wanda, in her homemade, floral print dress and new sneakers, looked down. She stood ten yards away.
I had seen such a formation – in versus out – a thousand and two times. Tamara, Vicki, Janisha, and Ella were pint-sized powerbrokers, committed to casting shade on others with gestures as simple as eye rolls. Wanda with her straight-cut bangs and blotchy face must have just received their verdict.
When you get banished on a playground, you have nowhere to go and no place to hide. Instead, you get shunned in place, under a full sun. Rejection lasts as long as it suits the whims of the self-anointed. I couldn’t let this one go.
“Tamara” I shouted, “Bring your friends here please.”
The four approached, arms still folded. Then I called in Wanda.
“Sit. All of you. We need to talk.”
When children get to hating, I make them sit side by side – close as can be. Hates require energy to sustain, and children tire when they have to hold up big hatreds. Sometimes a single, well-timed question can cause the spew to spill. To all five girls I asked whom to blame for the big bad mood stinking up the playground. Janisha spoke first, tossing Wanda over within seconds and using her raised index finger to bullet her points:
Talking too much. Stupid haircut. Telling lies about Tamara. Funny smelling in wet weather. The list went on, but then came the clincher:
“We just don’t want her near us.”
Janisha popped out the list with such practiced speed, that I couldn’t stop her and couldn’t prepare Wanda to receive the snark. Wanda winced at each punctuated point. Janisha’s statement concluded and then came a long, odd pause.
I saw Wanda swallowing what Janisha had said. She sat for a moment, trembling, and then came a window-shaking roar which went something like: “Stop it! Stop! You hate on me when you don’t even know my last name!” When the shock waves receded, I asked Vicki and Ella: “What is Wanda’s last name?” None of them knew. Not even the first letter! I looked at the four of them and then at Wanda. Now it became my turn to feel raw inside.
I read this quotation the other day from Andrea Balt: “Your weirdness will make you stronger, your dark side will keep you whole, your vulnerability will connect you to the suffering of our world, your creativity will set you free. There is nothing wrong with you.”
This evening, when I thought about the day, an old story came back to me about a dinner party. It involved a wise man who invited all kinds of folks over. Prostitutes. Priests. Thieves. Beggars. People too sick to walk. Soon, guests squirmed when they had to sit next to one another. They fell to whispering critiques, and the host, sensing the moment, knelt down to wash each guest’s feet. Every foot was as filthy as the one before. This tale offers guidance about a sequence we should prefer: Think first, talk second, and act last. No skipping steps.
Sometimes I think the playground is a place for children. Tonight I know that what happens on this blacktop grit is not about children at all.