There are only fifteen girls my daughter’s age in our entire school district—there are twice as many boys. In the early elementary years, this two-to-one ratio meant longer lines at the urinals, more plaid, less pink, and not much else.
To the children, gender seemed like a social construct of the grown-up world, rooted in arbitrary semantics, and did not dictate social mores. Since these kids spent much of their time arranged in alphabetical order, the first initial of their last names was a far bigger determinant when it came to making friends than what was in their genes.
For my daughter, who has always landed in the middle of the stereotype spectrum, this neutrality was ideal. Like countless other girls and boys in schools across the land, she was recreationally androgynous: it was the playing that was paramount, not whom she played with. That she played mostly with boys was fine—and understandable given the statistics. No one, least of all my daughter, gave much thought to the tenuous nature of the dynamic.
The shift from gender-role oblivion to hyperawareness was broad and brutal. It began early in fourth grade with some teasing and whispering, followed by tearful boy-girl rifts, note passing, and same-sex only birthday parties. The boys’ and girls’ attachment to one other was suddenly deemed inappropriate by mysterious, external forces; its innocent void replaced by self-consciousness.
My daughter would come home from school hurt and confused as to why her male friends shirked away red-faced whenever she addressed them in public. Am I different? She would ask when I knelt by her bed to say goodnight. I blathered about bodies and sweating and hair growing in new places, but nothing I said made sense—even to me. What does that have to do with friendship? She would ask. What, indeed?
By September of fifth grade, the girls were stoically resigned to playing new roles. Their puerile joyfulness had given way to a veneered maturity. They stuck together in the lunchroom, no longer eating with whomever they plopped down next to, but instead, sitting elbow to elbow, regarding each other’s trays. They drifted off the fields at recess, tired of being ignored by the boys and too timid to assert their rights for a turn to kick or throw or catch. They staked a sunny patch of consolation concrete by the entrance doors where they sat in a circle like a cloistered amoeba, not doing much of anything but talking and crossing, then uncrossing, their legs.
One Sunday evening at dinner, we were discussing the upcoming week and my daughter broke down in tears. She cried grievously, as if her heart were breaking, pained at the very mention of school. She hated lunch, she hated gym, she especially hated the recess circle.
She got cold sitting on the ground listening to the girls talk, honing their social skills by censuring one another. She missed running and chasing and PLAY; she missed the structured commotion of impromptu sports; she missed the competition and uproar and the unabashed pride of winning; she missed the boys. But more than that, more than what her tears could articulate, my daughter missed being one of them.
Leave the circle and go back out on the field, I urged her with the hindsight of wisdom and regret that came from my own ten year old self. But, getting up meant staying out and there was no guarantee the boys would let her play. When there are only a handful of kids to begin with, the social climate is precarious and breaking ties is a risky maneuver.
Eventually, my daughter stood up. I can’t say she returned to the field without a separate set of challenges, but she found strength in what she left behind.
As for the boys, they continued to thrive, spurred on by healthy rivalry and an innocuous affection for play.
May the circle of girls watch and learn.