On Friday afternoon—our last of three days without Caroline, who was in San Francisco for the big annual demography conference—Jay, Wally, and I walked up the hill from our house to expansive Buhr Park.
Our first stop was the soccer field, where we knew we’d find our eight-year-old neighbor Joe at practice with his rec team. The three of us trudged through an open field of wispy white dandelions and arrived behind the goal just as the young squad was completing its warm-up sprints. I felt proud, by association, to see that Joe was the fastest kid on the team.
We watched the soccer team go through passing and dribbling drills. Jay wasn’t all that interested—he preferred to concentrate on the thick cake of mud the wheels of his tricycle had picked up on the way over. He picked at the mud, tossed it, and rolled it into little snakes. Wally stood beside him, rocking the trike back and forth. The surrounding dandelions came up past his belly button.
But I was intent on the practice. The kids were doing a drill where they had to dribble out 10 yards, stop, turn around, dribble back, and pass to a waiting partner. It was entertaining—and enlightening—to see the wide range of skill levels even at this early age. Some kids dribbled as if the ball were on a string. Several others were utterly clumsy. I watched one pudgy eight-year-old trip over the ball as he attempted to pass it back to his teammate.
After watching the soccer practice we walked over the playground, which was crowded with kids from an after-school camp. It was a muggy day and unpleasantly warm in the sun. Wally and I found a patch of shade. Jay walked over to the base of a tree where three nine-year-old boys were digging with sticks, trying futilely to unearth a root.
Beside us in the shade two girls, also maybe nine-years-old, were practicing a hip-hop dance routine. One girl was tall and skinny, ungainly with her long-limbs. Her movements were jerky, imprecise, and out of rhythm. The other girl was shorter, a little thicker, and a much better dancer—so much so, in fact, that I felt a little uncomfortable watching her. But even so, it was interesting to watch these two girls side-by-side: The shorter girl just knew how to move her body; the taller girl just did not.
We had two more experiences at the playground that caught my attention. The first was with a girl who had a little dirt on her cheeks and slightly unkempt blond hair. She came over and sat down on our tricycle. Wally was playing with it at the time, pushing it through the grass. I told the girl she could sit on it as long as she didn’t pedal away. When she did start to pedal I stopped the trike and asked her to get off. She wouldn’t and eventually a camp counselor came to retrieve her. This same basic scene played itself out twice more in the remaining half-hour we were at the park.
The second experience involved Jay. For ten minutes he watched the three boys digging at the tree root. Then one of the boys pointed at Jay and said to his friend: “Pour the water on him.” The second boy was holding a bottle of muddy water that they’d been using to soften up the dirt around the root. He told the first boy that he didn’t want to.
Then the first boy turned to Jay. “Do you know how to talk?” he said in an aggressive voice.
“Yes I do,” Jay answered. I wanted to remove Jay from the scene but I was also interested to see how it was going to play out.
“How old are you,” the boy asked, in the same aggressive tone. “Three? Four? Five? I’ll bet you’re three.” Jay, maybe sensing that this was the kind of situation where it paid to front as older than he was, told the boy that indeed he was three.
The whole time the aggressive boy was holding a muddy stick. He was aware of my presence and knew, probably, that he’d get in trouble if he did anything too mean to Jay. I watched as he twirled the muddy stick nonchalantly through the air. It had the desired effect: Drops of mud splattered across Jay’s face, arms, and the front of his shirt. He gave the boy a quizzical look. He didn’t really understand what was happening.
Over the weekend I thought a lot about our afternoon at the park. What struck me most was how much more defined those kids were than Jay and Wally in terms of their personalities and their skills. I could write volumes about Jay and Wally’s personalities, and I feel like I have some sense of the types of things they’re going to be good at. But there would still be a lot of guesswork involved at this point.
But with the eight- and nine-year-olds we saw at the playground, many things were quite plain. I could tell immediately who was fast and who was slow. Who was coordinated with a soccer ball and who was not. Who could dance. Who was behaviorally troubled (the blond girl). Who had a mean streak.
It’s exciting and heartbreaking all at once to think that in just a few short years Caroline and I are going to gain this same kind of knowledge about Jay and Wally—and that they’re going to gain it about themselves.