Five year old footsteps pounding down the hall from the living room...
...MAHHHHHHHMMMMMYYYY! MICHAEL'S NOT DOING NICENESS COUNTS!!!!! MOMMMMMMEEEEEEE!!!
I don't know what he did, but she turned his ass in, assuming there might be such thing as a Niceness Counts penitentiary.
Niceness matters, niceness counts; come here, sweetheart, and let's talk about this. It's not so hard to be nice, is it? Being nice makes the world a nicer place. Being kind is good.
Lucia's mean to me...in a whisper.
Why is she mad?
Because she's fourteen.
Will I be mad when I'm fourteen?
I hope not. I don't feel good when I'm mad, do you?
But only for a minute, right?
OK, Elizabeth, let's make some signs.
Elizabeth made the signs. When she was five, her block printing was better than mine. It was unnerving. She made the signs and taped them all over the house. I didn't think I could explain self-righteousness to a first grader. Instead, I said, Elizabeth is learning the value of being nice. OK? ...in the general direction of the fourteen, nineteen, and forty-three year old. This worked out relatively well until Lucia bit Mikie again, and Mike smacked Lucia with a hardcover copy of the latest Harry Potter. Lucia, scarlet faced tears and rage lunged a second time. Glass shattered in the living room; a moment of silence followed by an explosion of obscenities.
Lucia, don't say FUCK!
It's not nice.
I don't want you to say FUCK anymore.
Also, shit. I don't like it when you say, shit.
Too bad, Monkey. You only get one word and the word is FUCK, right?
YOU SAID IT AGAIN!
I just wanted to be sure.
DON'T SAY FUCK EVER AGAIN OR I'LL PUNISH YOU!
You will? What will you do to me?
I don't know.
How about I give you a dollar every time I say FUCK!
LUCIA YOU SAID FUCK AGAIN!
OK, here's a dollar.
Lucia handed out a lot of dollar bills for a while.
The Niceness Counts signs stayed up for about a year until one of us shredded them. No one confessed and Elizabeth let it go. Mostly.
She was born in the middle of December, which makes birthday party planning a bit complicated. You almost have to send a save the date announcement in October, and you definitely have to get the invitations out by the second week in November, followed by reminder calls because nobody pays attention to RSVPs anymore.
If your child's birthday is in the middle of December, the easiest way to guarantee a high turnout is to have a sleep-over on the closest Saturday night. You turn into an instant baby-sitter, and Mom and Dad get to go to that Christmas party this year.
Elizabeth's first sleep-over was on her ninth birthday party. We laid the oversized tumbling mat on the cold tile floor of the lower level, and threw every spare blanket, sleeping bag, and pillow in a pile on top. Ten little girls turned up at the door; one was permitted to stay for an hour while her father had coffee in town, and another was picked up at midnight, having just discovered a cat allergy. Six sleeping bags and nine pillows arrived. I thought about putting the baby gate at the top of the stairs.
Elizabeth's room got a lot of attention at least four times a year. Toys were sorted, lost socks located, and the pile of chaos on the floor of her closet beaten into submission. The year she turned nine I realized there were still unopened gifts from her eighth birthday party. They'd been unwrapped and then stacked for future use. They were almost all craft kits and several of them were very expensive.
I decided we weren't having presents this year; at least not at the party. She understood, sort of, but wasn't happy about it. We had a quilting party instead. The invitation indicated that no gifts were allowed but that each girl should arrive with one yard of cotton quilting fabric of any design, color, or pattern they liked. To drive the point home, I made ten quilted squares, just a bit smaller than a hot pad, and shoveled them into the envelope.
Ten little girls showed up with nine yards of fabric and a watch. The girl with the watch wasn't staying. Fair enough. We didn't start until after Sofa's daddy came to take her home. That's Sah-fa, not So-fa.
Rulers, sharpies, and scissors were placed in the middle of the living room floor. Each girl measured and cut her fabric into six squares. Elizabeth did not have fabric but she helped with the measuring and cutting and there was no squabbling.
I had two sewing machines at the time. One was a very nice second hand Elna and the other was a relatively inexpensive Singer purchased for Lucia by my mother. At eighteen, Lucia could be trusted to pin properly, sew a straight seam, and press them open. We didn't worry too much about the margins and were surprised at the blocks, they were almost all exactly the same size. Fourth grade in Connecticut is the introduction to geometry and apparently they'd been paying attention.
Lucia and I guided each girl through sewing a block of four, and they took turns helping each other piece the blocks together. No one cried, no one yelled, and no one lost an eye. We had a bit leftover and I said I'd use it for the binding.
We spread the top of the quilt across the living room floor. Ten girls stood in a circle and gasped. It was a miracle! I cut the backing from an old sheet and the batting to size, and we pinned it together, sitting in the circle. I said I would finish sewing it up and then 'stitch in the ditch' to quilt everything together.
My ditch stitching is a nod toward the ditch. Nine year olds don't care. Kind of like Honey Badgers.
It would be done before they woke up, and after breakfast they would use the sharpies to write happy birthday words to Elizabeth on the squares.
Ten little girls stomped down the stairs, wound up and tired, and happy together.
For the last time.
These girls were moved to Weston for a private school education in a public school town. They arrived at or before kindergarten. It was a very small school system. Some years there are 200 students in a graduating class and sometimes there are only 70. The community is small enough that every girl at that party had been together one way or another for nearly five years. Most of them would be together for another eight.
It was the land of Investment bankers, fierce competition, high stakes, and stay at home mothers with advanced degrees. Advanced Placement classes were a given. A very high percentage of the population began with AP classes freshman year. No one got out without at least a dozen highly transferrable credits. It was a town in which state schools were not presented as options during the university selection process. The Meyers Briggs test was administered to each class in the eighth grade. PSAT and SAT tutoring was costly and mandatory. By the time they graduated, they were ready to rip each other's throats out.
The assumed privilege of the white upper middle and upper classes was embedded in their marrow.
I was sewing up the binding when Lucia whispered, Mom, come here. Quiet.
A split level ranch has a foyer at the front door, six stairs going up, and six down. We stood at the top of the stairs.
I did not want to do this. I don't believe in doing this. I believe very strongly that listening to private conversations, regardless of age, is as bad as rifling through someone's dresser drawers. Worse. Lucia said, I think you better hear this. It's Elizabeth.
They were standing at the top of the bottom section. We could see three shadows on the marble floor in the foyer. They were very quiet, but not so quiet that we missed it. Three little girls discussing the fate of another little girl. Another little girl, not twenty feet away on the mat. Later, Elizabeth confessed they'd made her sit in the rocking chair at the far end of the room by herself.
This wasn't a harmless conversation, just kids being kids. This was blood-thirsty in a Lord of the Flies sort of way.
Lucia said, Momma, don't cry, just talk to her. And so I did.
As if it was nothing at all, I made noise coming down the stairs. They didn't move, the little buggers. Three sets of eyes glared in my general direction. I asked two of them to go downstairs. I needed to talk to Elizabeth about breakfast and it was going to be a surprise.
I'm crafty like that, sometimes.
Elizabeth and I stayed in the foyer. I bent down and looked my little girl in the face. I didn't confront, I just asked a question.
Elizabeth, are you a mean girl?
I want you to think about this, really hard, sweetie, because it's super important.
I love you, baby.
Yes. I think I am.
Do you want to be?
I don't know. I have a lot of friends and Rachel isn't mean to me anymore.
Is it worth it?
I don't like it when Rachel's mean to me.
I know. You know what else I know?
Whoever you were talking about is probably really, really sad right now.
How much does niceness count?
Elizabeth. More than anything in the world.
That was the turning point. Elizabeth's life changed almost immediately. Her circle of friends shrunk to about three until middle school. She learned to be invisible. She might have been living on the margin, but she was bullet proof.
She was bullet proof until the day she took a stand for someone else.
We think she might crumble, no?
She still has the quilt and you can still read the words. Nothing that came after altered or diminished the moment she picked that thing up in front of nine smiling girls, and hugged it to her body. Under all the accumulated rubble, we are still these small people with astonishing hearts.