Friday, July 22, 2011

Playground Politics

She would never admit it to anyone, but Elaine got a thrill out of being the playground monitor. She saw herself, in quiet moments, as the overlord of an intricate web of social connections and hierarchies. She surveyed the landscape as children fought for dominance in the sandbox, determined who could ride the swings first, pushed their way ahead in line for the slide. Every moment another child would make his claim to a piece of playground equipment and have to prove his dominance over the child in charge. Fierce battles would erupt and she would be the one to determine the victor.

Now, in terms of her job, she should have punished the dominant child- the one who pushed hardest or hit. The rules led that child to time out and a stern redirection. But from time to time, she had to reward those who showed signs of leadership capacity.
That’s what most people didn’t understand. It was less like the African Sahara where male lions would fight over the spoils and more like primitive forms of government.

Some children even showed Machiavellian policies. They would kidnap dolls brought in for show and tell and hold them hostage in order to secure their time on the swing set. They would lie to another child that someone else had called them a name and then steal their spot on line for the slide when they went to tell her. One child, by sheer intimidation, had scared the other children into making offerings of candy, brightly colored stationary or toys in order to take their turn on the slide. He sat at the top watching as the scared children made their way up to him, eyes cast downward, their hands trembling slightly as they held out their meager offerings and hoped he would be pleased. All that was missing from the scene was a paper crown atop his head signifying his space.

She let him do this for longer than was right, she knew. But she was too fascinated to call it off before she could observe the rules trickle down through whispers and frightened asides. And she was too amused by the rare moment to cut short the young king’s rule before he’d a had a chance to enjoy it.

When she called him over to her to confront him she didn’t bother to ask if he knew why she’d pulled him aside- his satisfied smile told her he already knew. She simply held out her hand and raised an eyebrow. She would relish the memory of his smile wilting and fading as he handed over the prizes for years to come.

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