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What Is Popularity?
0n a late-spring day, when the early-morning air is still soft and encouraging, I saunter down a few blocks to the playground that, for as long as I have lived here, has served as a kind of nerve center of my neighborhood. My sons are grown and no longer inhabit the swings and slides and seesaws and spaces for chases, although they still have close friends, now scattered around the country, they first made there. And the parents with whom I struck up conversations while my sons cavorted have long since turned their attention elsewhere, although some are still in my circle of associates. Yet I go, freely, even eagerly. I am drawn to the sound of children talking to each other. The starts, the stops, the trills, the laughter, the cajolings, the running, the groupings, ungroupings, and regroupings, the sheer thrum of activity-they are, to me, a kind of music. And if in the sweet cacophony of voices I hear all the playfulness of a Mozart sonata, I also hear astonishing intimations of their whole lives.
"C'mon, guys, we gotta get on our equipment," says six-year-old Katy to a gaggle of kids who have gathered around her. She leads them a few yards over to the stroller that carried her younger brother to the playground and plucks out an assortment of old scarves she has brought so that others can join in imaginative play. She hands them out, and luckily there are enough to go around, as everyone ties one more or less across their shoulders. For herself, Katy has brought a once-spiffy satiny cape emblazoned with stars and stripes. "I'm Captain America," she says. No sooner do they start running about when alarge group of smaller kids arrives in the playground. Before long, Katy, followed by her caped cronies, is leading about a ragtag band of kids of various ages. "Hup, two, three, four," Katy sets the pace as they march. And as others in the playground drop what they are doing to watch this impromptu parade, Katy invites them into the line and assigns them a marching partner. Soon enough half the playground has joined in the fun. Eventually they circle around the coiling slide, changing their chant to a cheer whenever a child slides down. Most of the kids coming down the slide are utterly dazzled to be landing into such a receiving line. This goes on for several minutes. In the meantime, Katy's older sister has arrived at the playground toting a camera. Finally Katy runs out of steam and runs off to tinker with the camera. Soon her whole group disbands, drifting off to other pursuits.
"Daa-dee, daa-dee," sings eight-year-old Gabrielle with mock irritation at her father for not anticipating her latest move. Then she takes off again on their game of tag, erupting with laughter every few seconds as she evades his grandly futile attempts to snare her, then taunts him with a round of "daa-dee, daa-dee." While her father conveys to her his great pleasure in playing on her terms, he probably also knows she gets more than laughs out of the game. With every whoop and surprise, the rhythm of give-and-take the fundamental cadence of all social life is imprinting itself deeply into her soul. Gabrielle's father cuts a very compelling figure darting around the child-size structures like a large dancing bear, and these improbable playmates have attracted the attention of Sarah, stationed on the sidelines, where she is polishing off an apple. No sooner does she take her last bite when she asks to join in. After a few rounds, Papa Bear bows out, and Gabrielle and Sarah seamlessly spin their own merry game.
"I'm gonna get even, I'm gonna get even with that creep," Alex is suddenly sputtering, his face filled with fury and frustration, as three of his playmates restrain him. A sturdy ten-year-old who owns the soccerball cum basketball, he was just a second ago hoping to sink the winning "basket" into the makeshift hoop, in another comer of the playground, when Kyle backed into him, sending the hall wildly off course. "Get even." The words roll around in my head. These fight ing words, I have come to understand, are the outer wrapping of an inner certainty that has probably already etched itself in Alex's brainthat Kyle's misstep was hardly accidental, and therefore it merits revenge. Attributing hostile intentions to others allows him to contemplate, even justify, aggressive behavior. Alex already has the distinctive thinking style of a bully.
Accidents, missteps, spillover from other games are part of the life of the playground. Yet Alex is unable to let things be. Even as the words "getting even" tell me something about Alex, they tell me more about friendship. There is in us all a yearning for reciprocity, for mutuality, to be entirely even and eye-to-eye with at least one other, and so we make emotional investments in friends. Somewhere at the heart of friendship is a mutuality of influence, a deep need for feeling equal. Yet Alex is quick to perceive asymmetry, inequality; and the cooperative venture of a moment ago is suddenly a memory, ruptured by self-centeredness and competition. Because it is a way of seeing that generalizes to other settings, he will probably carry this misperception of the way things really are, this need to right wrongs only he sees, this inclination to reactivity, into the rest of his life.
Although I am witness only to small scenes from a playground, and know nothing of the rest of these children's lives, I have learned to see what is really going on inside these seemingly trivial transactions. Look at Katy. She has found a way to recruit other children into play when the spirit moves her. She is so willing to share her possessions she has brought playthings for children she has not yet met...