Jon Anne Willow
Up All Night

The ordinary cruelty of children

By - Nov 10th, 2009 09:27 pm
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"Cruel Joke" by Khalif Kelly, 2008

“Cruel Joke” by Khalif Kelly, 2008

Today is gray but warm, a last, soft kiss before the slap of another Midwest winter. It was my turn to drive the kids to school this morning, and two of them are still in elementary. It starts 25 minutes later than middle school, so I parked at the curb with the two boys, waiting until the playground filled up a bit before letting them out.

The fifth graders like to arrive early, the girls standing against the building wall in tight packs, the boys waiting in a loose group until someone shows up with a football, signaling the start of a quick match on the pavement. While my nephews played with the dog in the back seat, I observed the world inside the fence.

The older boys were milling in a loose hive formation, pushing each other and kicking their backpacks around. An athletic-looking kid finally showed up with the ball and immediately another kid, sporting a sweet pair of neoprene gloves, broke from the pack and ran to the center of the playground. Close behind him was an average-looking kid in a floppy zipper hoodie. Athlete threw the ball to Neoprene in a tight spiral, right over Average’s head. Perfect catch. Athlete and Neoprene proceeded to play, acknowledging Average’s presence only by stepping around him. Average gave up after the fourth toss, melting back into the pack to watch the pros in action, guarding his pride by kicking another kid’s backpack hard as he departed center field.

Along the wall I recognized a skinny, shy girl. She was in my son’s class last year, only now he’s in middle school and she’s, I guess, not. She stood so near a group of curly haired girls in short parkas with iPods that I thought at first they were together. Skinny took one of those rubber hands on a stretchy cord out of her coat pocket and began to sling it at the bricks, where it didn’t stick at all. The Curlies moved away a little; Skinny dipped her chin and formed a secret smile across her taut face. She knew her trick hadn’t worked, hadn’t drawn the wondering attention for which she’d hoped. She slipped the hand back into her pocket and pretended to look for something in her pink-and-purple book bag.

It was finally time to release the fourth grader to the mercy of the asphalt jungle and walk the first grader to his line on the other side of the long school building. As we passed, I heard Skinny shouting to a Curly: “How would I be offended by that?” I didn’t catch the answer. First Grader and I made it to his line, where he dropped his Star Wars backpack into the pile. I tried to ruffle his hair but he dashed to his little buddies and flung himself onto the jungle gym of the smaller, more innocent playground reserved for younger kids. I walked the block-long length of the school back toward my car, my heart aching for Skinny and Average.

As I unlocked my door to get in, I saw them both. A full-on game had broken out and Average was throwing a shaky pass with Athlete’s ball. Skinny was headed across the playground toward a friend, followed by a hyper little girl who was apparently even more poisonous than she. Hyper gave up when Skinny reached her friend, wandering back toward the school door to wait for the bell to ring.

Kids are so tough.

To see more of Khalif Kelly’s amazing work, visit his page on ArtNet.

Categories: Up All Night

0 thoughts on “Up All Night: The ordinary cruelty of children”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brought tears to my eyes. Kids are so tough.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Jon Anne thanks for the brutal but beautiful reminder of the playground and the cool kids.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I totally get it. But thank God that the right influence can really make a kid drop the social labels and play anyway. I have no children, but 5 little brothers. I always feel afraid that they won’t get where they want to be and may succumb to the pressures of life. Half of that is out of genuine concern for them and the other half is for myself. But the fact is, it’s moments like that that will bring the empathy out of them and make them stronger where it counts…at heart. Because even now, people are tough. And so is my overall understanding.

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