The Third Strongest Girl in the Third Grade
It was late afternoon when Jen Miller, Karen Mingey, and I set off into the woods behind Jen’s house. We were daring the March sun to set at its usual New England hour, half-thinking we could get to the Realm and back before dark, half-wondering what would happen if we didn’t. The red-brown pine needles whispered under our feet and the polyester of our checkerboard Umbro shorts swished softly, but I imagine that we talked in normal voices about whatever third graders discuss when they’re not discussing how it might get dark in the woods. Maybe soccer, but probably the Realm itself, which we were going to show Karen for the first time.
Jen and I had discovered the Realm a few weeks earlier while walking her golden retriever along the path that ran through the woods and over the aqueduct. It was a wooded area on the banks of the Charles River that had sustained a lot of damage during a recent winter. About a dozen fallen trees had created landslides of erosion, child-sized cliffs and ravines and rivers of loose dirt leading toward the choppy water. Their trunks were now bridges; their upturned root systems were now thrones, mountains, and barricades. Further down the path was the forest of rhododendron bushes whose groves and chambers had been our destination on the day we found the Realm. We were probably just heading off to play another game of Little Girls Lost in the Woods Surviving on Acorn Meat Until the Storm Hits when a glimpse of the fallen trees lured us off the trail, into the woods, toward the comic-majestic noises of the Canada geese who stirred up the Charles with their frighteningly strong wings.
I wish we had come up with a better name than the Realm. Even then it didn’t feel quite right to me. Something like “Terabithia” would have been better, but we hadn’t read the book yet, and if we had, we probably would have just called it Terabithia 2. Karen may have been more inventive; I don’t know, because she moved away a few months later and I never got to know her well. I remember only that she was good at sports, liked stuffed animals, and had short hair with a rat tail (this seems almost impossible but I’m sure it’s true). I think she must have been an unusual child, and maybe her imaginary play had the kind of generative spark that mine lacked. My dramas were flamboyantly articulated but mostly derivative of my favorite books and movies, and I think Jen followed my lead in this arena, although I followed hers in others. She was a soccer prodigy who moved quietly and comfortably on her strong, skinny legs, radiating a straightforward solidity and a gentle intelligence—a girl Buddha in a Champion sweatshirt and Sambas. The fabric of our friendship would not wear thin for many years (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker), and that day in the woods, it was new and bright.
A few hundred feet away, on the other side of the trail, was the Wellesley College golf course that ran between my home and Jen’s. The trail itself was well-maintained, either by the city government of our posh, Boston suburb or by the college itself. This was not wild country, but the thrill of discovery had felt real to Jen and me. The violent landscape, the harsh geese, the cold sunlight through the trees—the Realm was a rough enough stone against which to hone the edges of our eight-year-old souls.
We didn’t go deep into the Realm that day, as the darkness in the woods’ shade startled us into turning around almost immediately. We were heading back toward the aqueduct, the sun low and cool through the sparse canopy, the eastern skyline periwinkle, when we heard men’s voices. Youngish men, laughing a little raucously, men whom we did not expect to find wearing button-downs and khakis.
As we emerged from the woods, I heard my heart beating in my ears, the tips of which were burning with a familiar, Icy Hot sensation. The trail across the aqueduct was bordered by a double metal railing. About halfway across on the right, a hairy white man, whom my memory clothes in a leather vest with nothing underneath, was sitting with his legs over the lower railing and his arms over the top. I seem to remember a silver can of beer in his hand catching the evening sunlight. Another man leaned against the opposite railing, two motorcycles parked between them. Or at least that was how my child mind classified the vehicles; in retrospect, I can’t figure out what motorcycles would have been doing on that trail. Maybe they were Vespas? Maybe just very large, black dirt bikes? Regardless, the phrase that we murmured to each other was motorcycle gang.
The aqueduct was about 500 feet long. We had to pass these men to get home. It was surprising to meet anyone here, but our lives were so sheltered, our community so astonishingly homogenous, these men dressed so differently from the businessmen and college professors who populated our adult world, that this encounter felt like Danger. We joined hands, thought better of it and dropped them, kept going. We mustn’t stop, we mustn’t seem afraid. Closer, closer, the man on the railing looked back at us over his shoulder, said something to his friend. His friend laughed and, as we approached, said something to us that we didn’t understand. Nervously, politely, we smiled at him, walking faster, faster, the end of the aqueduct in sight. Don‘t run, don‘t run, keep going, almost there. I looked back: The men were still sitting there, talking to each other, paying us no attention.
Then the exuberance surged within us, a rush of adrenalized triumph. It wasn’t just the giddiness of tension relieved; it was fear turning to ferocity. We laughed, we skipped, and Karen said that if it had to happen to anyone, she was glad it was us, because we were “the three strongest girls in the third grade.”
I flushed with pride. Karen and Jen were definitely the two strongest girls. Was I really the third? It might have been the best compliment anyone had ever paid me.
That phrase has rung in my mind for thirty years. I didn’t think about it hard, but it made me laugh. Then my daughter Ruby caught Frozen fever, and I found myself absurdly moved as I watched her flinging her “ice powers” at her baby brother to the tune of “Let it Go.” I thought, May she too seek to own her powers, may she too grow to think there‘s no better compliment than to be classed among the three strongest girls in the third grade.
And better still, may she not need that compliment so badly. Surely I wished to be strong because I feared that I was weak. In Kindergarten I had been president of the Girls’ Fighting Team / Worm-Digging Club, in which office I spent recesses pretending to dig worms while devising surprise attacks on the boys’ team with Diana Barker and Aimee Worcester (and occasionally a boy named Aneesh Venka, who turned out to be a double agent). When we executed the attacks, I would kick up my heels and sing the theme song from the old Swedish Pippi Longstocking movies, part war cry and part victory dance. But even then I’d known it was a fantasy. I could not lift a horse like Pippi; I could not even run the mile in the Presidential Fitness Exam. Each morning and night, one of my parents would open a capsule of bitter white seeds into spoonful of maple syrup, maintenance medication that kept my asthmatic lungs from turning against me. I swam, I climbed, I had played soccer since Kinder Kick, but I rarely made it through so much as a game of tag without a timeout for two puffs on my moss green Ventolin steroid inhaler.
In addition to my asthma, I had anxiety and another, related condition that my mother had told me was called “empathy.” I was afraid of all suffering, my own or anyone else’s. I didn’t like scary movies, a genre which encompassed everything from Nightmare on Elm Street to Ghostbusters to the episode of Fat Albert in which one of the characters gets into a car accident while hitchhiking. I worried obsessively about a little boy called “Cowboy” who lived next door to my grandmother in Maryland because I saw him wandering the neighborhood unhappily with a bag lunch, and because his mother washed her car in a bikini. In fifth grade, I would be excused from watching educational films during the Revolutionary War unit because I had run from the room crying during a battle reenactment. The teacher let me go to the nurse’s office instead, where I picked up a Reagan-era drug education pamphlet that included the sentence, “I hit rock bottom when I woke up in the woods, face down in my own vomit.” I had an anxiety attack and had to call home.
I loved the pathetically passive pre-Elsa princesses, but the characters in whose image I forged my identity were the powerful children: Pippi Longstocking, Annie, even the twins in the Parent Trap. At night, I lay in bed imagining how I would disarm a robber holding another child hostage in JC Penny. That particular scenario remains vivid: I would sneak up behind him, signaling stealthily to the terrified patrons so that they would not give me away, then I’d grab the gun and turn it on him. What I don’t remember was whether this was more dream or nightmare. I spent at least as much time fantasizing about my own preposterous heroics as I did gnawing on fears about my vulnerability, and I am guessing these preoccupations ebbed and flowed in direct proportion to one another.
All children seek out risks, master their fears through stories of danger and triumph. I’ve read that when we try to make playground equipment safer, kids just seek out more dangerous ways to play. I do wonder, though, how Jen and Karen experienced that day, whether it was important to them the way it was important to me. At eight, they’d already found their bodies able to kick the ball a little farther, climb the rope a little faster than their peers. Neither of them was particularly anxious by temperament, and I don’t believe that either of them had asthma or any other chronic health condition that scored their lives with a vaguely sinister background music audible only to dogs, parents, and anxious little girls.
The volume of that background music fell as I entered adolescence, or rather it played from a different part of my consciousness, and I no longer recognized the tune. It surged again 15 years later, as I adjusted to the new vulnerabilities of falling in love and having children. I met this resurgence first with a few short rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy and then with a mindfulness meditation practice, both of which transformed my relationship to my anxiety. I now picture it as a sort of ugly-cute troll who comes to sit in my lap at inconvenient times, like a squirmy toddler or an irascible cat. I stroke its fuzzy orange hair or swat it affectionately on the bottom, depending on my mood. If it stays, I shift my position to make us both a little more comfortable until it’s ready to move on.
Back when my daughter was playing Elsa, it was too soon to tell whether she heard any background music other than “Let it Go.” That year, I watched her playing with a little boy in her bedroom, and I heard him cry, “Help, Ruby, save me! Save me!” I peeked in the door and saw him sitting in a large basket of stuffed animals, pretending to sink into quicksand or fall off a cliff, holding out his arms to Ruby for rescue. Busy dressing herself in princess garb, she did not respond.
“Look, Ruby!” I said, too eagerly. “Allesandro is in danger! He needs you to rescue him!”
She walked over to me and presented the zipper on the back of her dress. “Will you zoop me up?”
I decided to start reading her Pippi Longstocking. She loved it, especially when Pippi picks up the robbers and spins them around over her head, which is obviously the best part. At the last soccer practice of that season, she chased the ball with a ferocious glee, disappearing into a scrum of kicking four-year-olds. Then the ball emerged and the scrum broke up to reveal Ruby and her friend Catherine hugging in the middle, having apparently forgotten what they were there to do.
By the time she turned five, it was clear that we had defied neither nature nor nurture by producing a little Jen Miller or Karen Mingey, or even a little version of her remarkably non-anxious father. Ruby’s anxiety appeared to take more conventional forms than mine had—a summer germ-phobia, a flare-up around rule-breaking as she tried to master the world of Kindergarten crime and punishment—but who knows what else is going on in there? We taught her how to “boss her worries,” an age-appropriate version of my arrangement with the anxiety troll, and she likes the mindfulness exercises for kids that the school counselor comes to teach her class once her month. We’re optimistic.
But still, I signed her up for martial arts this year, and I’m looking for a class we can take together. Why settle for fantasizing that our soccer skills will protect us from the motorcycle gang when we could take a more direct approach?
A few years ago I ran into Jen Miller at the Whole Foods near my house in the suburbs of Washington, DC. We had fallen out of touch after college, but I knew from my parents that she now lived in Maine and was studying to be a radiologist. She was in town for work, and we were both completely disoriented by the meeting. As we talked, I watched two-year-old Ruby out of the corner of my eye, letting her stray far enough that Jen remarked on it. “She’s adventurous,” I said, “it’s fine.” But I was absorbed in our conversation, and I soon looked up to see her being escorted from behind the counter of the café by an employee who had found her in the kitchen. I was embarrassed to have let her wander, to have my judgment proven poor, but I know why I did it.
I did it for the same reason I left for the Realm that late afternoon. When my children wander and return, when they fall off the coffee table and get back up with a bruise and some bluster, I hear an echo of the triumphant motif that flooded my soul that day at the aqueduct, that fleeting interlude when the whole chorus sings in joyful five-part harmony: “We are strong, we are safe.”
My kids probably hear some version of that chorus too, and yes, some of these choices reflect a conscious parenting strategy–one you can read much about on the Internet–an effort to cultivate in my sheltered kids the sense of autonomy and fortitude that they might develop out in the woods if we lived in a different time or place. But when I’m being honest with myself, I own that these choices are more coping mechanism than ideology, as much a response to the child inside me as to the ones I’m raising.
So I let my kids jump from the coffee table to the couch, watch them moving the table a few inches farther away for each jump. And I leave work a little late on my bike, climbing the hill in the immense park by my home, daring night to fall on me in the woods. The sun shines low and cold through the spidery trees, and I peddle harder, seeking evidence that the world is a safer place–and that I am a stronger girl–than I sometimes fear.
Jody Petalson keeps busy as a parent, a teacher, an amateur organizer, and an instructional coach for the District of Columbia Public Schools, but life feels most complete when she remembers that she is also a writer. She has published essays on motherhood and teaching in Atlantic.com. She lives with her family in Takoma Park, Maryland.