For so long I wished not that my oldest daughter Betty, age 9, would raise her voice and speak up. Two years ago, I spoke up about mean girls on the playground, and her principal told me, it’s time for her heart to harden a little. In fact, I vehemently said to the principal, I wish it otherwise. I wish her heart to remain forever soft and delicate. For if her heart hardens, then I lose sight of the little girl I believe she’s meant to be in this world. I stood up and left the meeting, keeping inside all the other things grown-ups aren’t supposed to say to one another.
Last night, Betty ran towards me in secondhand cowgirl boots and the moment our eyes met, I knew her heart had punctured just a little bit. In my arms, she sobbed on my flannel, twisted my braid like she’s done so many times before. Oh, Mama, she said, the very last ten minutes of my life were the very worst of my life! She was talking about the girl in the purple coat with black hair, the one that said her sister Lucy, age 6, had a chicken butt and should just go live on a farm since [she] already looks like a farm animal. The girl with the black hair and violet sleeves had told Betty’s youngest sister Olive, age 4, that she should just go put a diaper on if [she’s] gonna keep on acting like a baby. The girl’s lines punctured outside like the blackberry bramble around the play area while the adults inside filled cups and plates and conversations across the tables.
I was tired of wiping tears throughout the night, so I sat Betty down in her own chair and walked out in my own cowgirl boots to have a soft and sweet conversation with the girl in the purple. Halfway to the girl who didn’t live on our island, another island mama stepped in front of me looking shocked and proud and sad. Your oldest daughter really knows how to use her words, she said with her most recent babe in her arms.
It’s the best compliment I’ve heard in a while. In back seats and around the dinner table, I’ve talk of saying what’s on the tips of hearts and the importance of not walking away in tears with words on the tips of our tongues.
This mama pal of mine had stood sideline to the entire conversation. The girl with the purple sleeves had put her hands on her hips and called Betty a big, fat dummy stupid-head. She’d said it over and over and over until Betty’s tears got in the way of all that energy used in the ignore, in the attempt to take herself away from the scene that was hard to stay within.
Betty turned around, placed her bitten fingernails in her back pockets and took a step towards the girl in the purple jacket. Do these tears make you feel powerful, do my tears make you feel good, and does this make you feel happy? I’m so sorry for you. I’m so sorry saying terrible things to people make you feel good instead of terrible. It’s just really too bad you’re not more like me and less like the person you are tonight. It’s too bad you’re upset that I’m a happy person who loves reading and playing outside and being outside all the time. It’s too bad you sit inside alone all the time and watch television: all those shows with all those bad characters and mean girls. You know, you’re just like them. You’re just like all those terrible television characters you spend so much time indoors watching.
I couldn’t hear the end of what my friend was saying; my heart exploded a little bit. It was the very first moment my oldest girl had stood up for herself and someone heard it all. I wanted to run back into the barn and grab my first baby, but this mama pal told me she hopes her daughter can speak her mind just like Betty when she looks all grown up like my girl: tight jeans, hoodie slung off one shoulder and feathers in her hair.
When Betty walked away to find me, the friends of the girl in the purple jacket said, Wow. You were mean to a lot of kids here tonight. How would you like it if someone said all those terrible things you said to everyone else back to you?
They do, said the girl with the long black hair, everyday on the playground where I’m from—it’s how people talk to me. And after that line, the girl in the purple coat walked over to the fence, kicked a few stones and dug her heels into the dirt.
Back inside the barn, I grabbed my Betty’s fingers and smiled so big I’m certain I took all the sadness out of her for the moment. I am so proud of you. You used all the important words inside your heart. You didn’t scream. You didn’t put her down. You set her straight, and then you came straight for me. I told her about what the children around the girl in the purple jacket had said, and how she’d been called a dummy stupid-head on her own playground. Obviously, Betty said. But at least it’s not too late for her to change.
I’m so proud she spoke up for her sisters and for herself. I’m so proud of the girls they’re growing up to be.