I was watching my kids on a dock, a floating dock, the kind idyllic summer memories are made of. There were a handful of kids from the island, some just visiting for the day and my four. From afar it looked like a scene from an old-timey summer movie, like Dirty Dancing, but for the Nickelodeon set and without the sexual coming of age stuff.
Before long I got that strange mother-feeling that something was up. A boy, we'll call Crazy Eyes (but not in a judgie, mean-Mom way), started taking ownership of the dock. Even the thick kid who was a head taller stood down. I looked up just in time to see Crazy Eye place both hands on my eight-year-old's chest to shove him backwards into the water.
I watched him climb back up and then things returned to Stand-By-Me normal until I saw my six-year-old daughter swim over to climb up on the dock, too, to stand by her brother. And to be honest, at home she is our very own Crazy Eye, prone to dramatic recitations of grievances, bizarre hate letters, strange stalking behavior.
So, yes. Two Crazy Eyes on the dock.
The Crazy Eye boy looked directly into her eyes and without even turning, ordered the boys behind him, "Raise your hand if you think girls should get off the dock!"
No, he didn't. (Um, yes. Yes, he did.)
And perhaps the most heartbreaking moment? My eight-year-old son raised his hand in agreement. Was this Stockholm Syndrome? I mean, sure, she's your annoying kid sister. Also, homegrown Crazy Eye. But blood, people.
From the water's edge I piped up. "You put that hand down." I said it in the dog whistle voice that only your oldest child can hear.
It continued after that. "Girls, go!" "Get them off the dock!" "If they stay, we jump overboard!" (The last one sounded like a great idea to me. I wish men had been going with that one since the Stone Age…)
My youngest girl joined her sister and eventually they got off the dock and came over to tattletale. And I was mostly at a loss at what to say.
"You got off the dock because some boy told you to?! I get that that's frustrating, but who's he to tell you that?" Then she went into a chatty retelling of all the drama like I hadn’t just watched it.
"Zip it. Not interested,” I replied. “He's not going to punch you. If you want to be on that dock then you get back on that dock!"
When she returned to the dock, he blocked her climbing back on the dock with a boogie board (our boogie board, may I add.). In that moment I was torn between admiring his shifty-eyed moxie and wanting to pick him up and throw him in... so I waded in and picked her up instead and set her on the dock.
"Now you guys can all share," I said pointedly, as I walked away.
Eventually the boys got off. My youngest girl found a newer, better family to play with. My eight-year-old turncoat continued with the bully boys.
But my six-year-old daughter came over to me. She was bored. She was tired. She was down-trodden.
There was so much I wanted to undo about that whole interaction: the Crazy Eye boy being such a jerk about gender, my oldest son being such a sucker, my daughter not being able to finesse the moment, or better yet, slam into it.
I kept thinking about it that night as I prepared dinner, washed their faces, tucked them into bed. Once upon a time, I read Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf. I remember when my college RA called us women our freshman year, and I recoiled. But then I realized that we are women, that we're part of this history of feminism, dammit. I mean, Virginia Woolf? Sylvia Plath? Yes, please.
We talked about the dock incident on our walk home that day. I pointed out that any boy who'd kick out someone based on gender was likely to bully you for something stupid next and that it was important to be an up-stander (staring at the back of my eight-year-old son's lowered head.) I noted that the one girl who stayed on the dock had her older brother standing up for her, and she also stood her ground and ignored the Crazy Eye boy. She stood there like she believed she belonged, like she knew his taunts didn't matter. And whether because of the ally, the sense of self, or the confidence, no one questioned her.
This small moment felt like it meant something. And I'm not sure if it was about a boy being unnecessarily mean, or another boy not standing up for someone in need, or a girl lacking the power to persevere, or the systemic subjugation of females throughout history.
Or maybe it was just a dock, just a bunch of kids being kids.
Before I knew it we were already back at the house lining up at the outdoor shower, stripping off suits, kicking off flip-flops, navigating who gets to shower first and which towel belongs to whom, just like every other day this summer.
But I can't help wonder if something's changed in an imperceptible way, if there's just no going back to the day when it felt like that dock belonged to everyone.
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