Picture me in third grade. I am nine years old, and I have principles. I believe in following the rules — I am more or less the class snitch — but only if they make sense. I am uptight and want to live like the little English boarding-school children in the books I read. I wear pleated skirts and white, collared shirts and black Mary Janes. I am very opinionated and bossy.
My sister is in kindergarten. She goes to the same school as me, but the preschool and kindergarten are on a different campus from the elementary school. The elementary school is let out fifteen minutes earlier, so every day I and some other older siblings ride a small, white school bus to the kindergarten campus so that our parents only have to come to one place to collect us. Every day, my sister and I each play with our friends on the kindergarten playground while our mother talks to the other mothers. The day in question is no different.
My friend is Meredith – a name which a hundred years ago would have belonged to an English gentleman, but which in 1999 belongs to an eight-year-old girl who lets me dictate the imaginary game of choice. We run back and forth along the hill at the side of the playground, lost in a fictional universe where we are devotees of a religion of which I am the inventor and high priestess. We think highly of ourselves, because we are third graders and everyone else on the playground is much younger.
That makes no difference to Patrick. He is in kindergarten and is the playground bully. He menaces more or less everyone, but Meredith and I, because we are third graders, believe ourselves inviolate. We turn a corner, and he is there. He carries a plastic bucket, the sort one plays at the beach with, that is filled with mud. (It has rained the night before.) He carries a shovel, too; he is likely building a mud castle or some such thing. He demands that we move. We do not; he has no authority over us. “This is my territory,” he says. “It’s a free country,” I say. He goes away, muttering dire threats. We pay him little heed and carry on.
We barely have time to congratulate ourselves for our bravery when he comes back, armed with both the mud and now a small branch, which he waves menacingly. Meredith runs. I stand my ground. “We were playing here,” I say. He threatens to attack me. “Violence is not the answer,” I say self-righteously. That is all it takes to provoke him. He comes at me with mud and stick. I stand still. Before I can regain control of the situation, there is mud on my shirt and there are welts on my arms. I run crying to my mother.
The parents try to apprehend Patrick, but he is nowhere to be found. There is a general shrugging of shoulders on the part of the adults, but I am left bewildered. Why is Patrick not being put to trial there and then?
I am upset that Patrick has transgressed the rules of expected playground decorum, and I am upset that my high-minded display of civil disobedience failed. I cannot decide which is worse: the painful lacerations covering my forearms or the fact that my favorite shirt is now ruined. I go home with my mother and my sister, left unsatisfied by the injustice of it all.