Friday, May 6, 2011
Over breakfast with some friends the other day, one woman, a mother, brought up the social and peer pressures kids now face in kindergarten. She was particularly distressed by the little Lucrezia Borgia who rules, mercilessly, over her daughter’s 5-year old set.
Oh, no! said everyone, aghast, hearing tales of bribery, intimidation, and social injustice. Not in kindergarten!
Not in kindergarten? Where did these people go to school?
I remember kindergarten as a thrilling experience, and not because we wore daisy crowns or skipped through meadows. Kindergarten was a mine field, a hotbed of intrigue, alliances, deception, redemption, betrayals, all laced with spilled milk and sticky fingers.
For many of us, it was the first real taste of both freedom and confinement -- moving beyond the grasp of parents and into the vise like grip of peer pressure that would tighten with every passing year.
It was like getting thrown into the middle of a playing field without a ball. Without even a specific game. We had no rules, no object, no stated goal. In spite of this, we formed teams, and within our teams, we jockeyed for position. It was beginning to look like this whole life thing might be mainly a matter of position.
To this end, some of us developed, cultivated, specialties, primarily based on audience approval. For example, a public meltdown and temper tantrum over a piece of blue chalk could win genuine awe and respect, whereas a potty accident might ruin one’s entire social season.
My personal and most popular gambit was to correct the teacher, and this I did when she tried to teach us common German phrases. I already spoke German, so would helpfully point out any of her mistakes in grammar or pronunciation. “Miss Berry! Miss Berry,” hand waving wildly. “You’re wrong!”
This continued until she sent a note home with me one day. My father thought it so funny the story joined others in family legend; my mother, on the other hand, was appalled, and the homeschooling ended abruptly.
I don't think I felt ashamed; I'm sure I didn't. We were cute and sociopathic little puppies; doing the right and the wrong thing mostly by accident. Equally surprised by punishment and praise. Too young to read a moral compass, we put more of our energy into figuring out what it was adults wanted to hear. No wonder we needed a nap.
Back at kindergarten, I formed a posse, and recruited new members with shiny objects. We traded our glass jewelry and trinkets, not out of generosity, but to secure friendship, loyalty, and when necessary, to have something to take back again.
Niffer wore my pearls. Niffer wasn’t the brightest bulb, even I could see that. But I liked looking at her – so tiny and perfect. She'd do anything I said, so it was like playing with a living doll.
I met my first boyfriend in kindergarten, although I don’t suppose he knew it. I loved Todd Fisher. I loved Todd Fisher as much as I loved my dog – fanatically. Todd would walk to kindergarten with his holster and six shooter and white cowboy hat. He wore a string tie.
Todd stood apart, by himself on the playground, but he didn’t look scared or shy or anything. Just, I don’t know, somehow more knowing than the rest of us. He had big ears that stuck straight out from his head, and they’d turn red when the sun was to his back. I would slide my hopscotch marker way out of bounds, hoping it would land in his direction.
One day Niffer didn’t show up for hopscotch, she was standing with Todd in the playground. And when we all came inside for song circle, I saw Niffer wearing a string tie.
I cut her from my gang with a cold and surgical precision that I could only hope she noticed. As I said, Niffer wasn’t bright. Certainly not bright enough to correct a teacher.
Funny, at that age we may not have been able to count past 20, but that didn't stop us from trying to add things up.