She could’ve been talking about her spelling test, she described the story to me so matter-of-factly, her little face betraying no sadness or hurt. “At recess, Mom, she said I was too small to play. So I just sat on the stairs and watched.” It was the third day in a row that she’d been told she wasn’t wanted, for one reason or another. She was used to it.
There’s always a Queen Bee, buzzing busily in the circles of female friendships. Her role is subtle in younger years, she hasn’t yet been crowned. But by the age of six, there she is her Royal Highness, cape flowing regally from her narrow shoulders, sparkling crown planted on her head – giving her free reign to determine who gets to be friends with whom, what games they will play at recess, whether your new boots are hot or not. If you are in her favor, you are golden. She casts her royal glow on you, and you feel that you are walking on air, that the chariot the two of you ride together will actually sprout wings and soar above all the lowly subjects on the playground. There is nothing you can’t do together. There is nothing you can’t do alone! Until you are no longer in her favor – one day you’re in, the next you’re OUT. Yes Your Majesty. Curtsey. Exit.
Nobody dares to unseat the Queen. It’s as much the order of things on the playground as it is in the beehive. The perception is that without the Queen – this Queen – it would all fall apart. And the industrious second grade she-bees need hierarchy and order as they buzz about their busy days of school, recess, hip-hop, birthday parties, sleepovers.
“Sage,” I say in a barely-controlled pseudo-calm voice, “why didn’t you tell her she can’t say you can’t play, and that she hurts your feelings?”
“Mom,” again so deadpan, expressionless, “you know I have a hard time saying that. I wanted to, but I just can’t get those words out.”
Ugh. Yes, I do know. I know exactly how she feels. I know how uncomfortable confrontation makes me. I know she’s worried that if she speaks up, expresses her indignation and hurt at being excluded, Queenie might alienate all the other bees from her, and she’ll be all alone at recess with no prospect of a buddy to walk with to hip-hop and no hope of a sleepover ever.
My heart breaks into sharp shards as I look into her no-longer-innocent green eyes. I imagine picking up one of those shards and piercing Queen Bee’s fuzzy little body with it. You can’t say you can’t play! Preschool 101.
Worst of all, my little bee is afraid to buzz.
Every day there is another exclusionary incident. She wouldn’t let Sage tell a story. She sneakily lured Sage’s friend away from her at lunchtime. She told Sage she wasn’t good at basketball.
Sage and I role-play: what would she say next time QB told her she couldn’t play? You don’t get to tell me I can’t play. What would she say when QB told her to stop telling her story? That hurts my feelings.
I encourage Sage to eat lunch with different girls, to share her stories with somebody else. I imagine her little heart beating loudly in her chest while she tries to muster the courage to speak up to QB, to tell her that the things she says don’t feel good – because, 32 years after being in second grade, my own heart pounds in my throat when I try to do the same. Do we ever really leave the playground?
I stop hearing about QB for a while. Sage seems happy, talks about school and friends, no drama, no incidents. On parent-teacher day, I sit down at the little desk, and there screaming up at me from the self-assessment each child writes, in her still-developing-but-perfectly-formed-no-2-pencil letters, are the words: One friend is mean to me all the time.
There are those shards, so real and sharp I make a fist around one. I look up into her teacher’s kind, unwavering gaze. “Do you know what that’s about?” It bubbles out of me, unfiltered, heated, sticky. I hear myself say, over and over, “She just doesn’t want to tell her how it makes her feel. She’s scared she’ll be alienated from all the other girls.”
Wonderful Teacher quietly nods. She knows exactly what I’m talking about (of course, she’s not a second grade teacher for nothing). “It’s important to teach the children that if being around a friend doesn’t make them feel good, that’s not a friend.” I simply stare at her. I feel like she is my second grade teacher. “Friends are people you want to be around, and who want to be around you. If it feels bad, it’s not a friendship.”
The bees start buzzing excitedly. Life 101.
Sage spent the next weekend with a different friend, an awesome friend. All weekend. Back-to-back sleepovers. Smiling faces for 48 hours. They were inseparable, happy, busy, together-bees.
I’m never too old to learn the lessons taught in second grade.
Back on the playground, QB looks anxiously about for a few new subjects.