Sometimes Break Apart

Editor's note

By the end of September, Opal was the only girl left on what had started, only weeks before, as a coed soccer team. As the coach's daughter and the younger sibling of twin brothers, she wasn't easily run off by the rowdy crew of six- and seven-year-old boys who, especially when in a pack, can't resist pouncing into every mud hole or shooting balls at each other's heads.

My son is one of those ebullient hooligans—a charismatic clown who is good at most sports because he is attuned to his body and has an uncanny ability to focus on improving his skills. This combination of traits seems to make him irresistible to other boys his age: they call out to him in passing, crowd around him, ask to sit with him at lunch, play with him at recess.

Emmett and Opal have been friends since they were toddlers. Together they are silly and reckless in small-scale, small-kids ways, forever bonded by the indignities and inequities that come with being younger siblings. On the field, they are tenacious and competitive, equally respected and trusted by their teammates. But off the field, for whatever reason, the team sometimes breaks apart and the kids create a pecking order, the way I've seen kids do, the hows and whys and unspokenness of it all mysterious to me.

One day after practice, the kids were passing balls around in small groups as adults folded up goals and collected clothing and water bottles strewn around the edges of the field. I turned away from chatting with another parent and caught the end of what was probably a typical offense: a couple of the boys were trying to keep the ball away from Opal, leaving her teary-eyed and bellowing with rage. Emmett was in another group, ignoring the activity, continuing to work on his passes. A parent intervened, correcting the boy and mollifying Opal, and everyone packed up their kids and headed home for dinner.

Later I asked Emmett if he'd noticed what had happened after practice with Opal. He nodded. I asked if that type of thing, boys excluding girls, happened a lot. “I guess,” he said, shrugging and looking away.

I briefly wondered if, at six, he was too young for a lecture about power and inequity, about sexism and patriarchy. I knew Opal would be fine: I saw her then, and have seen her since, direct her outrage at the boys, making sure they knew that she would not—would never—accept that kind of treatment from them.

But still, I forced my son to make eye contact with me and said, “Here's the thing: Opal is your friend. And those guys, they listen to you. If you told them to stop, they might. If you passed her the ball and included her, they might do the same. Okay?” He nodded—showed no clear sign of sheepishness or understanding—and went back to playing with Legos.

I am well into the fifth decade of my life, and I have been in and witnessed a lot of these types of exchanges between those who have power and those who don't, between those who exclude and those who fight to stay and belong. Some of those stories are in the pages of this magazine. Each year seems to bring more stories—trivial and epic, personal and political—of unfairness and injustice, of oppressive systems being reinforced, of acceptance and inclusion being denied, of things breaking apart. I wonder if I'm foolish to again feel disappointed at being caught at the losing end of hope, to still be surprised at the limits of my own power to make things right.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Your last sentence spoke powerfully to me. Retired now from years of trying to make things right, I find myself surprised at my current sense of helplessness in the face of so much injustice and oppression, at our fragile progress again torn asunder. I am looking to recover my belief that I can change this. But right now, I feel mostly sadness and despair.

Rosemarie Sweet | December 2016 | Portland, Oregon

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