I once bribed two girls to be my friends.
It all started when I made the colossal mistake of inviting that girl Kim to play with us at recess. Julie and I had been best friends since first grade, inseparable in Miss Larson’s class held in the trailer south of the school. For two years, we’d stuck together like the ham and Miracle Whip sandwiches in our My Little Pony lunch boxes. (This was the eighties, folks, and my metal lunch box with its matching thermos meant more to me than my home perm.)
When we landed safely together in Mrs. Bailey’s third grade class, I anticipated another fun-tangled year with Julie by my side. She was the prettiest girl in our grade, with ashy blond hair that could be successfully primped without the atrocious feathered bangs showcased by the rest of us.
Kids wager so much on appearances and this weakness proved my downfall. Kim ranked second after Julie in beauty with thick, curly, dark hair. In my mind, she was a suffering princess in need of friends. One recess, she was playing alone on the heat-conducting metal slide, so I invited her to join us on the rusty merry-go-round. (In these days, playground equipment was more dangerous than a loaded gun.)
Kim joined us that recess and every recess afterwards. I can’t remember how quickly I discovered three makes a crowd, but it could not have been long.
At first, our hopscotch and four-square games hobnobbed with goodwill, the autumn sun pulling the freckles out from underneath our skin. But soon enough, Julie and Kim began the shopworn ploy of whispering. They whispered during recess games, by the classroom sink, and in their desks behind me while I diverted my gaze to the window. Were they talking about me? I kept tagging along with them, but my smile stonewalled and dwindled.
The first breakup happened just days after the whispering began. I can’t remember it exactly, but I imagine it went something like this:
When the recess bell rang, I twisted around to face Kim and Julie. “What do you want to play for recess? I brought my Chinese jump rope?”
I’d just finished drawing a picture of the three of us, Julie sandwiched in the middle with her wavy blond hair while Kim and I hovered on either side. We each donned a red tulip over our left ear, and I’d written The Three Musketeers across the top. (I still have this picture, so I know it’s authentic).
Kim and Julie glanced at each other. “No thanks. We want to play our own game.” They didn’t add without you but the meaning was implied. With that, they shuffled out of the room leaving me behind.
I kept my eyes glued on the three musketeers in their fancy dresses, the two-dimensional grass sprouting giant-size daisies until the picture bleared.
In elementary school, I cried a lot. Yeah, I was one of those kids. But it was okay, because I had the perfect cover. I pretended to have allergies, bad allergies that caused my face to redden and my eyes to water. Whenever someone asked me if I was crying, I’d just reply with my go-to line, “No, my eyes are just watering. They do that sometimes.” It was the perfect subterfuge, or so I thought.
My eyes watered acres that day. The devastation seeped through my thin skin. I’d like to say I stood up for myself, that I retorted with “Forget you, mean girls!” and found my way to the pell-mell group that played kickball at recess. But instead, my heart walloped like a wild horse trying to find a way back to the herd.
Even at that age, I understood my neediness came across as a crapshoot, so I decided to pretend everything was normal. Maybe they would forget about dropping me like a hot potato. The next day, I secured a red-rubbered ball for four-square and scampered to save a court near the basketball hoops. When Julie and Kim exited the building, they glanced in my direction but ducked their heads to scavenge for a hopscotch rock instead.
It was official then. I’d been ousted, unseated, given the pink slip. No doubt these friend-jilting experiences are a dime a dozen on the playground, but when it happens to you, it’s your own private Challenger explosion.
For me, the years rush backwards like a pinball to halt and hover in this one pain.
“Are you crying?”
“No, my eyes are just watering. My eyes do that sometimes.”
I only cared about getting my friends back. Nothing else mattered. Cursive and times tables could take a hike. I did what any third-grade-girl would do. I wrote a note. With a vibrant-colored marker on brown paper, I scribbled:
Dear Julie and Kim
You are both really pretty and nice
I like you a lot
Will you be my friend?
I carefully folded the paper into thirds and stuck a daffodil sticker over the fold to seal it. I slipped it behind to Jenny.
Later, Julie passed me a note sealed with a tawny cat sticker.
Kim and I will be your friends for the rest of the year
You are very pretty and nice.
Love, Julie and Kim
I smiled so wide my cheeks bunch up like parentheses, and my allergies dissipated. It’s official. They would be my friends for the rest of the year. I revered the note as a binding document, signed and notarized. My friend crisis was over.
At a sleepover, Kim pushed my sleeping bag aside so hers would be in the middle. She dominated the conversation and when Julie’s twelve-year-old brother walked through the den, Kim zeroed in on the opportunity.
“He likes you,” she razzed and even in my naivety, I sensed the jab behind the compliment.
By Monday morning, Julie and Kim buzzed like bees in the desks behind me.
“What are you talking about?” I swerved in my seat.
“None of your business, Kristen,” Kim deadpanned.
The bell rang for recess, everyone ran out, grabbing coats from the hooks in the hallway. I watched Kim and Julie prance out of the room. They’d promised. We will be your friends for the rest of the year. I was crumbling inside like the eraser particles waiting to be swept off the paper.
Outside, I wandered aimlessly around the gray field in my puffy coat, my hair hitting my face like dead seaweed. They were following me a short distance behind, their arms linked together. I stopped, hoping they would catch up and say it was all a joke. But when I stopped, they stopped, keeping the distance between us. They followed to hound me, even though my wildly sensitive heart flung the thought away again and again. They followed like shadows.
It was time for extreme measures. I needed an ally and quick. Back in the classroom, I walked over to Mrs. Bailey’s heavily laden desk.
“Can I talk to you for a minute, Mrs. Bailey?”
She glanced up, pulled off her glasses, and folded them gently. “Sure sweetie. Come into the alcove.” She hiked up her thick stockings, as I followed her into the small area that held supplies and a sink.
Her pale green eyes searched my face as I blurted out the situation. “My friends, Julie and Kim, don’t talk to me or play with me anymore.”
“Oh dear,” she muttered, “Why are they doing that?”
“I don’t know.” My eyes clouded over. I must be allergic to something in the alcove, maybe the scented markers scattered on the countertop.
“Oh dear me, don’t cry.” She pulled me into a side hug before I could explain my allergy situation. “Remember you’re a special person. I bet they will forget all about it in a few days. You are a beautiful girl.”
Now, let’s be clear here. I was anything but beautiful in the third grade. I’d yet to don the glasses that would swallow up my face with their sheer size, but my hair was stringy, uneven, and I’d caved to the call of the feathered bangs. The bags under my eyes were as thin as onionskin, and my insecurity cloaked me like a Lisa Frank t-shirt.
Mrs. Bailey saw beyond my awkwardness. She didn’t see it at all. That was the power of Mrs. Bailey. I mattered because all kids mattered to her. I couldn’t articulate this at the time, all I knew is how I felt when she listened to me. I tugged at her kindness like a lifeline.
I wish I remembered how long the flipflopping lasted with my two friends. An entire year or just a few months? It stretches like a Chinese jump rope in my memory, but I hope I didn’t put up with it for months on end. The ordeal was prolonged because of the good times mixed in with the bad. Like when Kim was out of town and Julie and I stood with linked arms, watching our clay volcanos erupt with the mixture of vinegar and soda. Or when our game of hopscotch overshadowed any other consideration, and we fell into the habit of kissing our rock for luck before each throw.
But the good times disappeared like a twinkie when I’d hear the whispering again. Once, I found myself hidden in a bathroom stall when Kim and Julie rushed in at the start of recess.
“Hey Julie,” Kim called from her perch, “let’s not be Kristen’s friend anymore. I don’t want to play with her. She’s always crying.”
“I know. It’s stupid.”
They clamored to wash their hands and race out the door. I hid in the stall for the rest of recess. My eyes watered so much my chambray jumpsuit grew damp.
“Mrs. Bailey? Can I talk to you?”
“Oh dear, are they at it again? I want you to do something for me. Will you do it?”
I managed a nod.
“I want you to stand in front of the mirror every morning and say: I am special. I am special. Mrs. Bailey says I’m special. Will you do that every morning before you come to school?”
I nodded obediently but seriously doubted it would help me reclaim my friends.
“And one more thing,” Mrs. Bailey added. “Find some new friends.”
Find new friends? How do you go about finding new friends in the third grade? The idea seemed preposterous, like changing your favorite color or walking home from school a different way. This strange idea of Mrs. Bailey’s skirted around the edges of my focus, sidestepping the limelight.
This is when the bribing happened.
Once again, I pulled out the paper, but this time I wrote two separate notes. One for Julie. One for Kim. I wrote about how beautiful they were and how nice (really?) and how much I missed playing with them at recess. Please be my friend again? I pleaded. Folding the papers into thirds, I then taped a quarter on top. This time George Washington acted as my seal.
I remember the look on Julie’s face as she read my note on the school’s front steps, the sunshine blaring down from the west. She touched the quarter and smiled. I knew the bribe had worked just by her posture, her arms spread wide, exposing her heart to the sun. I received a note back the next day:
You are very preety but I don’t have any money for you now.
I would like to be your friend.
I’ll sit by you at lunch time.
You’re super great. Love, Julie
The bribing was my last grand gesture, my final plea. We were friends again, for about as long as it took to spend a quarter. This time, when the dreaded whispering began, and they retreated to their private club, the anger settled into my stomach like oatmeal. I blamed Kim entirely and told some other kids as much. It felt good to say it. To finally move past the place where reconciliation was possible.
But word got to Kim. At the next recess, she stood before me with a smirk that drove the bugs back into the cracks at my feet.
“I hate you,” she stated, her dark curls whipping in the wind.
As she walked away, my heart collapsed like risen dough ready for kneading. To be hated by someone felt terrifying, like being challenged to a fight at the dumpster after school.
“Mrs. Bailey, Kim said she hated me.”
In her polyester wrap-around dress, Mrs. Bailey knelt so she could look me in the eyes. “Sweetie, no one says you have to play with them. It’s time for you to find new friends. That is the only answer to your problem.”
I studied her round face, the curls from her pageboy haircut resting above her eyebrows. Her placid eyes never left my face as I stared back, swallowing the light she was giving me.
In the years following this experience, I saw only the bruises, the damage to my fragile self worth. Surely my skittish social skills and confidence poverty could be traced back to this third-grade ordeal. My loneliness? Clearly a byproduct of third grade bullying. Like the famous optical illusion, I saw only the white vase, the elaborate curves and swells against the dark background.
Only by writing about the experience has my perception finally shifted to see the other image: the mirrored faces in the black, the shallow foreheads, orthodox noses, and posed lips. How did I not see it before? The salient picture overshadowing the other.
The heart of the story was not the mean girls or the aftermath trauma but the woman, third-grade-teacher extraordinaire, who listened to my woes and repeated simple platitudes that rang true. She taught me the basics of compassionate self-talk while pocketing my idiosyncrasies, my watering eyes, my victimitis. She fusspotted my problem until I found my way.
The years rush backwards to halt and hover in this one kindness, in this moment when a beloved teacher restored my little life through compassion.
Maybe I could find new friends. But how do I find them? I walked around the playground. Girls clustered around a hopscotch with their lucky rocks. At the swings, a girl in red Levi’s reared up for an underdog push. She ran forward, thrusting the swing up and over her head. Her friend flew into the open sky, squealing. I saw a girl named Wendy rocking her body in time with a swinging jump rope in front of her. She dashed in and jumped in rhythm. The two girls twirling the rope started to chant.
Cinderalla, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella. Made a mistake, kissed a snake. How many doctors will it take? One. Two. Three. Four.
When the rope hit Wendy’s ankle, she stumbled to catch her balance. They giggled as she untangled her legs. They continued with swirling arms, a rope, and dancing feet.
At lunch after purchasing my carton of milk (for a quarter), I carried my lunch box towards the table where Wendy and her friends sat. My stomach lurched and bounced like a small rubber ball. I set my lunch box on the table next to Wendy and slid into the bench.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey. I wish my mom made me home lunch,” Wendy said, pointing to my lunchbox.
“I know. School lunch is gross,” I ventured.
The something in my tummy bounced to a stop, like an abandoned ball on the playground.