I had lunch at L.'s school the other day. Actually, I ate at my office and then went to his school--I wouldn't dream of bringing my lunch into the cafeteria--eating there is way too stomach-turning an experience. It was chicken nugget day and vegetable soup for the kids buying lunch. Chicken nuggets and chocolate pudding for dessert. During lunch I looked up for a moment (this is always a mistake) and saw the boy a few seats down from L. dipping his nuggets into his chocolate pudding. I felt my heart lurch for L., who won't eat lunch in the school cafeteria, and for all sensitive-minded kids who have to sit through 25 minutes of chocolate-covered chicken nuggets, spit balls, and vegetable soup with strange unidentifiable chunks in it.
After lunch I went to recess with the kids and I headed to the back corner of the playground, where L. usually plays. He often likes to spend his recess time digging for moon rocks, and usually a few kids will join him on and off, and I'll sit on the wooden steps and watch the rest of the kids as they race chaotically across the field, all blurs of red and blue and yellow clothing, hair flying, feet pounding dust into the air. If you don't watch closely, it doesn't seem as if any of the kids are playing anything at all resembling an organized game or activity. But because I have 25 minutes to sit there I can spend some quality time watching and analyzing (and dodging soccer balls). When these same kids were in kindergarten the girls and boys clumped together, and played alongside each other, for the most part. Now, in second grade, they have decidedly split along clearly demarcated gender lines--with a few exceptions, of course. L.'s buddies K. and E., two sweet and motherly girls in his class, like to dig for moon rocks with him; they keep watchful eyes out and are quick to spring into action if someone interferes with L.
But what I noticed the other day was that the games have become decidedly more flirtatious. The poor hapless boys race back and forth playing cops and bad guys (it used to be cops and robbers in the old days; now it has to be generic "bad guys"--a sad testimony of the times, I think) and the girls find ways to taunt them. They pull on their sweatshirts and run away, or jump them from behind, tackling them, and then running off at the last possible minute. I watched, horrified by how flirtatious some seven-year old girls can be. Does it really start this young? What's happened to kids today? Will I be sitting here, three years down the road, watching my own daughter giggle and chase and tumble to the ground in a tangle of limbs?
Then, as my shocked mind began to process all this I had some flashbacks of myself at seven. I have vague memories of such games myself--and of how thrilling it was to run from boys on the playground. I remember, too, Tony K.--a short, blonde, floppy-haired boy who smelled like bubble gum and dirt. He was my first real crush and it was under a fir tree outside the school building that Tony K. pledged his 2nd grade heart to me by giving me a piece of strawberry bubble gum and promising to marry me some time in the distant future--when we were fifteen, I think. Then I ran from him, ducking out from under the fir tree and out into the wide playground field, laughing at him I'm sure, from over my shoulder.
I don't know what happened to Tony K. I only remember the bubble gum and that promise, and the spring sun, and the wind in my hair as I ran from him on the playground, feet pounding the grass into dirt, my heart feeling like it was filled with the whole world.