My girls chitter chatter in front of me as we walk to school in a jagged tangle of excitement. Hopping, running in stops and starts, both of them planning to be in line exactly when the bell rings at 8:55. I shuffle behind, waving to parents I know from the street, or the park, or anywhere in the benevolent bubble we call home. My girls’ backpacks bounce on their narrow backs; flowers, peace signs, hearts fuzzy in a kaleidoscope of wide eyes. It’s comforting here, and I glance like I always do at the kind hills that ring our suburbs as sentries. I’m still grateful for this place where we can stay awhile.
My daughters haven’t known another elementary school, and this will be my oldest’s third year here. My youngest started kindergarten five months ago, already on a first name basis with the playground and the classroom, because her sister had the same teacher two years before. I’m new to all this familiarity, since I moved from school to school as a child. I’m happy for my girls that they know some measure of stability, even if I know that I am who I am because I didn’t have it. Still I’m there with them, delighted at knowing all the teachers’ names, the routine, who’s who and what’s what. It feels rooted, solid and strong; a little scary for how quickly that can turn. A bit of that fear rests inside each cell, activated for the other shoe dropping when I moved the first time at age three. But for now, I smile at the bouncing backpacks.
The girls run to the front of the school, like always, find their lines and place. I remain behind, as always too, taking it all in, waiting. A group of girls catches my eye, and I see how a coiffed, side-ponytailed child clutches at another girls’ arm, with both hands circled at the other’s elbow. They walk in step, as four more follow a foot behind. I see a desperation in how the first girl holds on to the second, as if marking territory, as if holding off interlopers. The other girls seem to want in, or to be a part, and indeed they are, but the gatekeeper has them at a distance. Her friend is hers first. She whispers in her chosen’s ear. The ones behind aren’t meant to hear, and they know it. I see sadness and insecurity and vulnerability.
I know all this is coming, and I understand it’s mild and non-threatening at first. No bubble is safe from the jealous, fearful people who might turn into mean girls or bullies or sticks and stoners. Many won’t turn into anything quite so horrible, but they will unwittingly hurt my girls’ feelings, even if that’s not the point. The point is how do I cast iron my daughters’ egos, how do I strengthen them, how do I make them impervious, how do I give them to know that all this does not matter, does not, and so often it’s not who walks at the front, it’s who you are when behind.
I count myself lucky in that I escaped much of what I worry about for my kids, even for all my moving. I didn’t bear the brunt of teasing, of bullying, or excision from a group. And whatever secret ingredient I had — where I lived? who I befriended? when I grew up? — I wish I could repeat for them, step by step. I think I would take away their painful lessons if given the choice. I view that as a weakness I’ll never shed. They learn these lessons on their own. We can only prepare.
You’ll be OK, you’ll be OK, I repeat as I walk. I can protect you, I can line your insides with armor, I can take the whispers away.
But even the hills know, so solid and sure and ringing us in, no one ever can. I realized that early on.
I let them line up, and the girls wait.