by Darlene Pagán
My query starts with a search on sapling growth, more specifically, how many inches of growth are possible from seed in a five-year period, but a link pops up in red: How Many Five Year Olds Could You Take in a Fight? With two young children of my own, I pull my hands back from the keyboard as if I’ve touched something slimy. Who would write such a thing? Then, I think this must be a joke. It cannot be as gruesome as it sounds: someone sitting in a darkened room who not only considers ways to assault children but devotes time and energy to an entire website that encourages others to consider the same question. More likely, there were a few college friends, bored, half drunk, imagining what might happen on a playground if the entire kindergarten class suddenly turned into zombies after eating a bad school lunch. Despite the creepiness, my curiosity wins out, and I click the bright red link.
The link takes me to a white screen surrounded by red stars. At the center stands a man in black with no discernible features, fists at his side, legs apart in a stance of readiness. There are fifteen children in a line facing him and sixteen behind him. There are no headings, no subheadings, no About Us, or Contact links. At the bottom of the page is a brief description of the survey and what the questions are designed to isolate, namely, an individual’s physical prowess, any training in martial arts or similarly relevant sport, swarm-combating experience, and the flexibility of the individual’s moral compass, which I take to mean the relative comfort of the individual in socking a five year-old.
The list is followed by the ground rules:
- You are in an enclosed area roughly the size of a basketball court.
- There are no weapons or foreign objects.
- Everyone is wearing a cup (so no kicks to the groin).
- The children are merciless and will show no fear.
- If a child is knocked unconscious, he is “out.” The same goes for you.
I sit back and consider the children I know: nieces, nephews, children in the neighborhood, strangers on the playground or at the pool, my own sons. Last week, several boys, all under the age of eight, smashed an enormous slug on the sidewalk in front of our house with sticks, howling like wolves, and screaming things like, “Get it! Don’t let it get away! Kill it!”—as if they were speaking to a wolf, not a mollusk. My six-year old was the youngest among them and the loudest. When I strode outside and told them, in short, “We don’t kill living things,” they nodded politely and set their sticks on the ground. Moments later, from the kitchen window, I fumed to see the buggers huddled up, looking at the ground again, sticks high and readied. I click on the link to begin.
The survey questions are broken into three sections. The first deals with physical ability—body type, height, age, the reach of one’s arms, the fighter’s sense of balance, and how high he or she can kick. Athletic and balanced at forty-two years, I sense that I’m in good shape after the first section, definitely competitive.
The second section, much shorter, is devoted to training. It asks first about martial arts experience (I have none), and second, about swarm-combating experience. I have to open another window on my laptop and research this word. Swarm-combating turns out not to be an actual word but swarming is. In the military, swarming behavior draws from the behavior of insects, generally the attack of an enemy from multiple directions. In the military, as with some insects, the swarm is a highly choreographed event with a particular end in mind, usually combating armies. Anyone with a military background will have an edge. Then, I reason, so too would parents.
by Darlene Pagán
At the doctor’s office, when my sons were three and four years old, I was cold cocked in the nose when they saw a nurse come in with a metal tray, inside of which were several syringes for immunizations. Their sheer strength was alarming. It took two of us to subdue my youngest, while a second nurse actually administered the shots. Between the screaming and flailing arms, I kept my head turned and eyes closed to avoid blows. No one was knocked unconscious, but the kids showed no fear in their attempts to avoid the needles or defend themselves against their attackers. It didn’t matter what I promised them if they would sit still or what I threatened to take away; I was the enemy they would squelch like a bug as long as that nurse approached with the hypodermic needles. So I place my bets with parents, especially parents with a military background.
The last question on training asks about the number of fights one has been in. The responses include: None, one to two, three to seven, or eight or more. At first, I assume I’ve hit my Achilles heel. I’m a pacifist who writes poetry. I’ve pulled my boys out of school to take them to the art museum, even though their inability to keep their hands off anything made the tour more like a race through rooms and hallways to find the elevators where, once, one of the boys pushed the emergency button while the other tried to make his voice unrecognizable with a high-pitched, almost British accent, “Allo? Allo?”
If really think about it, my earliest memory returns to me: my unrequited kindergarten crush on Tony Carnana, a boy whose finger I stapled in the midst of a craft, though I have no recollection why I thought stapling his finger might be an appropriate show of affection. And then there was the boy who kept picking on my toddler brother. Didn’t I give him a black eye? Wasn’t I only five years old? As the eldest of three siblings, each of us only eighteen months apart, I pushed my sister out of a tree; and kicked my brother in the crotch, tied him up with rope and sat him on the gate of a pick-up truck, only to learn later that he’d broken his collar bone when he fell backwards onto the truck bed. I prided myself on being a tomboy and having ripped the heads off my sister’s Barbie Dolls.
Oh, yes, and then there was also that one official fight at St. Mary’s Catholic School, where I was bullied and teased by the same three girls for months in the second grade because I smelled like manure when I went to school in the mornings. It was my responsibility to water a few of the horses we boarded in the mornings, and it never failed that I forgot to rinse my shoes on exiting the paddock on the farm where we briefly lived. The smell was something so familiar that even to this day, I will hang my head out the window like a joyful dog when passing a stable.
One day, when the girls had cornered me during recess in a forbidden area, I snapped because I saw that they would tease me until the end of time unless I fought back. The girls had circled me. One grabbed a hand full of snow and smeared it on my neck. The shock of the cold hit me and I threw my head back and struck something hard. When I turned, I saw Colleen Dabbert with her hands on her face, stumbling backwards; her friends staring in shock. I took advantage of the moment and shoved one of her friends down. The second came at me and I shoved her, too. Colleen rose to her full height to face me. I tipped my head down and charged her like a goat and then ran inside for class. I felt invincible. They were three bigger girls, but I had kept all of them down. Even better, they left me alone after that.
To my dismay, I realize I fit squarely in the category of eight or more fights.
The last section of the survey, devoted to understanding one’s moral compass, is the shortest with only three questions. The first asks about whether or not the fighter would fight dirty, as in biting or kicking. It’s the second question that addresses how the fighter considers the philosophical dilemma of fighting children. The options are:
- This is so wrong—these are children, for Pete’s sake. I don’t think I could fight them, even in self-defense.
- I’ll do what I have to and fight just hard enough to win.
- To hell with morality, I’d be too busy pile-driving, crane-kicking, and bare-knuckle bashing them all the way back to kintergarten.
It bothers me that the writer has misspelled kindergarten, unless the writer is drawing from the Germanic origins of the word, kint, meaning child, which I doubt. And too, the children would not be going back to kindergarten since, at five, they are entering kindergarten, but I am over-thinking the matter.
The moral compass: isn’t this what I’ve been circling all this time?
As a mother, I have been peed on, pooped on, spat at, and found myself, more than once, dressed in finery and covered in vomit. Nearly every part of my body has been kicked, slapped, clocked, licked, or bit. My hair has been pulled out at the sides, the back, and the top of my head. Once, my youngest got his hands on a pair of pruning scissors. He was nearly three years old.
My internal panic kicked in, but I very calmly approached him, “Sweetie, hand me the scissors.” He shook his head.
“Hand me the scissors, sweetie, those are sharp.”
We were outside, and he’d found the pruning scissors next to where I’d been using them to trim the heads of dead flowers in the front yard. I’d turned my back for a second.
I tried to stand up over him to grab them by the handle, as opposed to the open, sharp ends he was pointing at me, but he backed away.
“No, I can help,” he said.
“Let me get you a different pair,” I said firmly. “And please don’t walk backwards with those scissors in your hands. It’s dangerous.” I could feel my face flush with fear and anger as he only stared at me, though he’d moved the scissors to his side. I tried to look casually around me to see if any neighbors were out on their front lawns as the thought occurred to me to tackle the boy and send the scissors flying.
He looked like he was going to bolt so I reached in quickly with the aim of grabbing his wrist with one hand and prying the scissors from him with the other. He was quicker. He thrust the scissors at me and closed them hard around my middle finger. I yelled out. My cry scared him enough he let go. My older son, then nearly five, came running over as I whined in pain and wrapped my finger in my long t-shirt to staunch the bleeding.
“Mom, are you okay?” He screamed when he saw my hand, the blood on my wrist, the shirt soaking through with blood. The cut went down to the bone and throbbed for weeks. I probably should have gotten stitches. My fury at that child was tangible, like something I’d eaten hours before that came back up in my throat, burning, ugly, and unrecognizable, though I didn’t even scold him.
I have found myself apoplectic when the boys have gotten so wound up, playing or fighting (sometimes impossible to tell apart), they cannot hear me even when I’m standing in front of them insisting they put the nerf gun, the pillows, the plastic swords, the truck, the stick, the rock, the book, the dinosaur down. R-i-g-h-t. N-o-w. I have pinched both of them under the dinner table after returning from the bathroom to find them purposefully putting food and drink in their mouths and tickling one another to see if they could make something fly out their noses. I clunked one half-heartedly with his helmet, trying to fit it on his head after catching him trying to teach himself how to ride a skateboard without it—this, less than a year after a boy died in our neighborhood from head trauma in a skate boarding accident.
I have wanted to tie them both up and leave them in the back of my pick-up truck after hearing one whisper to the other, while they were supposed to be feeding the guinea pig, “See what happens if you put the hay in her ear. No, poke her in the butt.” I could have torn them to shreds and lined the poor rodent’s cage with them.
My sons have driven me batty with their fighting over everything from a cup and a pencil no one wanted a moment ago to a jellybean smashed under the car seat. They argue over how much time they get to sit in my lap or how much shorter my hugs are for one than the other.
They have made me slow and stupid as a cow from sleep exhaustion. They have made me curse myself and my husband. They have driven me to the edge with their semantics and logistical gymnastics.
“Mom, he called me a nutball!”
“No, I said I found a nutball in my toy box.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”
“Then where is it?”
“In my treasure box in my room.”
“Mom, he’s going into my room without asking permission.”
“No I’m not. I left my GI Joe guy in the bathroom upstairs.”
“No I’m not.”
“Swear to it, you liar.”
“I don’t swear. Mom, he called me a liar.”
In a complete fit one afternoon, I repeated to my sons the words my mother and grandmother had said to me when I was acting out, “If you don’t pipe down, I’m going to sell you to the gypsies.” My grandmother’s people were Bohemians from the former Czechoslovakia, so the impression was that she had a direct line to an actual buyer and seller when I was growing up.
My youngest stopped in his tracks and turned a quizzical look on me, “What’s a gypsy?”
When I explained as best as I could, he smiled at me, “Really? When can I go?”
Gone are the images of myself as a barefoot, granola mother who pureed her own baby’s foods from roots, vegetables, and fruits grown in the backyard without pesticides or fertilizers; who baked her own bread; and who taught her sons how to be one with the environment, how privilege comes with an obligation to help others. Now, I am more inclined to think that if they don’t take one another out, or me, or my husband, by the time they are teenagers, we might retire, still married, with our limbs and mental faculties intact.
The final question in the survey asks: during the fight, would you feel morally comfortable picking up a child and using him/her as a weapon to throw at other children? By now, in my head, I’m thinking, Hell yes, but my fingers hover over the keyboard. A friend of mine once confided, “I never had anger issues until I had children.” In a public hallway, on a college campus, we had lowered our voices as if plotting a crime. I laughed, but I knew she was serious. Parenting deepened my experience of emotions like love and fear, compassion and frustration, hope and exhaustion, but I’d never expected to find myself teetering on a precipice between fury and revenge, relishing imagined scenes of my life if I hadn’t actually had children: book signings in Berlin for my third novel, constructing houses in a remote Mexican village, learning to speak Romanian, landing the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago.
But here, I pull the reins back on the runaway horse, the one carrying my fantasies like a victory flag in the laps around my brain. I can be the mother who thinks of harming her children, even selling them to the gypsies three generations gone in a country that no longer exists on the map. I can threaten to hang them by their toenails though I’m tickling their feet, but, given the real violence in the world, I cannot say I would do so even in a sight as frivolous as the one I’ve spent more time in my life engaging than I care to admit. From school shootings to a boy who threatened to pepper spray my kindergartener, I cannot play at real violence. Adults are supposed to know how to curb their impulses though the news suggests we are often little better than children. Still, a good part of parenting involves teaching children how to curb their impulses while also learning to trust their instincts. We want children to know when it’s best to back away and retreat and when to stand their ground and fight, but context is everything and often murky, even for adults. I click no and shut my laptop. I’ll work another day.
In the other room, my husband is wrestling with our sons. I can hear them scream and howl. When I peek around the door, the biggest boy stomps after the little one, while the little one launches himself at his father’s back, kicking him, slapping his belly, and in a fit of inspiration, pulling his pajama bottoms to the floor.
Watching them, I am reminded that the whole survey started with sapling growth. Saplings are immature trees between three and fifteen years old. They range in height from two to ten feet. Most important, they are more likely to bend than break. In humans, flexibility is a function of attitude and experience. Parenting is a lifelong exercise in how to bend without breaking. The training is brutal, but the rewards are immeasurable. The hope, too, is that those saplings will take root, deep and wide in the earth while we keep threats to their survival out of their way for as long as we are able.
When I complete the survey, I have a number: 21. It seems high, but it’s still smaller than the average kindergarten class. I try to imagine what my children’s teachers would score and quiver with gratitude that the classes I teach are made up of adults over the age of 18, some of whom are also parents and have shared how equally glad they are for the civility of the classroom, the reasoned exchanges, the blissful quiet of an idea thoughtfully weighed. The classes I teach are not just a job but an escape. Sitting down with my books, never once have I worried what might be lurking on my seat or under the table. My youngest tiptoes in the room upstairs where I had been working and curls up like a cat at my feet.
“Can you play too?” His is still breathing hard from rough housing.
I slip to the floor from my seat, and curl around him to plan our attack on the boys downstairs.
Darlene Pagán teaches writing and literature at Pacific University in Oregon. Her books of poems include Setting the Fires (Airlie Press) and Blue Ghosts (Finishing Line Press). Her essays and poems have most recently appeared in journals such as Calyx, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Brevity, Poet Lore, Hiram Poetry Review, Literal Latté, and Hawaii Pacific Review. She loves to swim, hike, dig at the beach, play in the rain, and ride roller coasters now that her sons are just tall enough to ride. For more information, visit: www.darlenepagan.com.