By Sarabeth Matilsky
Payson Park is in Belmont, outside the hubbub of Boston, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood of well-to-do folks. It’s got a ball field (small) and old-style playground equipment—not modular plastic pieces, garishly bright, but metal monkey bars and swings that haven’t been miniaturized yet to prevent lawsuits. It is a warm April afternoon, and as moms and young children trickle into the park, a little girl comes over to where Lucas (age 5) and I are playing. I am constructing a small house out of pinecones and sticks while Lucas collects dead branches from up in a pine tree.
“Hi!” says the girl, yelling up. “I’m Layne. What’s your name?” Lucas is high up by now, but he peers agreeably down through the prickly boughs.
“Lucas,” he calls.
“Oh,” says Layne. Then, after a minute, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
“A boy, of course.”
“Wanna play with me?”
Lucas says, “Sure--after I get down from the tree. I’m collecting for our fort.”
Gender was a hot topic among the 4- and 5-year-olds at Payson Park that April afternoon. One reason was that the kids couldn’t always tell the sex of their peers. But mainly, it was because the adults had trouble too.
“Hello, children,” said a grandmother with a baby, as she approached a crowd of four kids that now included Lucas and Layne. “How are you boys today?”
“I am NOT a boy!” shot back a child with cropped hair, who was dressed in green and carrying a large stick under her arm like a battering ram. “I am a GIRL! We just got hair cuts, that’s all.”
“How nice!” the grandmother continued, unaware that the four small sets of eyes were regarding her with annoyance. “So…we have three girls and one boy, do we?”
All the kids stared at her--Lucas, Layne, the-girl-who-looked-like-she-could-be-a-boy, and another little boy with boy clothes and a decidedly boy haircut. The woman obviously thought Lucas was a girl, but he didn’t bother to correct her. Instead, the four kids turned to each other.
“Are you a boy?”
“No, I said I was a GIRL! I’m Pauline.”
“Well, are you a girl, then?
“No, I’m a boy.”
“And I’m a girl…and you’re a boy…and she’s a girl.” With that settled, the four returned to their task at hand, which currently involved feeding small stones and sticks into the sewer grate.
The sun went lower, and Layne and Lucas went over to the monkey bars. “Wanna play Tarzan?” asked Layne. “You’ll have to be Tarzan ‘cause you’re the boy.”
“No way, I don’t want to,” said Lucas. “Anyway, who is Tarzan? I don’t know that game.”
“Tarzan is…TARZAN,” said Layne. “What movies do you know?”
Lucas, a man of limited media exposure, didn’t know any. Layne suggested a few more movie- and TV-show-based pretend games, and came back around to the Tarzan idea. “Why don’t you wanna play TARzan? she said, annoyed.
“Well, I just don’t know it,” Lucas explained, his curly blond head bobbing up and down as he tried to swing hand-over-hand across the monkey bars. “But you can show me. Just play some of Tarzan and I’ll see how it goes.” Layne said she couldn’t do that, though, so the two contented themselves with the monkey bars, hanging by their knees in companionable silence. I wondered what they were thinking--it must be nice to be so content just to be.
Lucas could climb trees way higher than Layne’s mom allowed her to go.
“Layne, honey, no higher--I want you to practice on the lower branches now. Wait till some day when daddy’s here, so he can catch you if you fall.”
“I can climb higher, Mom,” Layne said, exasperated. “I can do it already! I don’t need to practice.” Later in the afternoon, her younger sister Renee fell from the monkey bars while her mom stood six inches away. She was close to the ground, but she fell hard. How difficult to recognize, as a parent, that you simply can’t protect your child from the risks of climbing--and that whether you want them to or not, they will climb anyway.
When it was time to go, we headed for the gate and I asked Lucas if he wanted to say goodbye to his new friend. “No,” he said.
“Why?” I asked curiously.
“I just don’t, that’s all,” said Lucas. He wasn’t being rude; he just had nothing else to say now that their play was done.
All afternoon, I watched the children and wondered who they’ll someday become: Lucas, who finds endless amusement in worms and pine cones and rubber bands--who will he be when he’s older, when he starts thinking about keeping the knees of his pants clean and whether it might be more hygienic to wash his hands before eating after he’s been touching beetles and mud puddles and discarded bottle-cap “treasures.”
Where will they be in twenty years, these kids who play on the monkey bars and discuss whatever comes into their minds at any given moment? What will they look like, what will they do with their time, what will they dream?
An orange sunset sank over the playground as I took one last look at all the kids as they swarmed over the slides and swings. I hoped that wherever they end up in twenty years, those kids will keep on climbing whatever comes into their paths.