I also like tagging along on field trips because if I’m quiet enough and hang back just a little, I get a rare view into who they are away from me, how they fit in, where they stand in the social schema of their world.
Last year, I accompanied my daughter’s fourth-grade class to Jamestown, three hours away. The weather was beautiful, and the five girls in my care were smart and funny and blissfully naïve. The braver boys in their grade buzzed around the edges of our little group, trying to get close to one or another of the girls, but they swatted them away like flies.
We spent the day talking about their favorite books and movies and songs and sports. We bonded over Taylor Swift and Divergent and sang along to Frozen on the bus. They were adorably nerdy and impossibly sweet. They gave me bites of the snacks their mothers packed for them and greedily grabbed for the water bottles and Goldfish crackers I’d brought.
Before we left Jamestown, I took a photo of them with a statue of Pocahontas. They made faces for the camera and bounced around too much for me to get a shot. “Freeze,” I shouted, and I meant it. I wanted to just hit pause right there, stop the inevitable progression into boys and cliques and questionable clothing choices. I knew what was coming, and I wanted to let them have just a few more years of pure childish joy.
Fast-forward to this year’s fifth-grade spring trip to a nearby wetland preserve. I have a few of the same girls in my group as last year. They are taller—my daughter has grown five inches since Jamestown—and are starting to look more like teenagers, with all the acne and awkwardness you might expect. Now the talk is of which classmates are “an item,” which are “maybe a thing” and who’s just friends.
Last year there was no queen bee, but this year there is, and I spot her from a mile away. Designer sunglasses, impossibly shiny blond hair with the kind of soft waves I’ve spent 30 years trying to achieve, and chic pale gold loafers that she wears without socks, in sleek contrast to the brightly colored Nike and New Balance sneakers all the other girls sport. Her last name sounds French. I instantly hate her a little.
“Is she the reason I had to go out and buy you sunglasses last night?” I ask my daughter, who fidgets a bit with said shades. “Um, well, she thought it would be fun if we all wore sunglasses,” she admits. I notice that all the girls have tied their class t-shirts into side knots. “Were the shirts her idea too?” I shoot back. My daughter flashes me a look and then grins, “No, that was mine.”
Once we’re off the bus, the queen is quickly joined by a boy who easily stands out among the others—cute, confident and as tall as the girls (quite a feat for a 10-year-old). They make a striking pair, and it’s easy to picture them as prom king and queen, class of 2022. I ask one of my girls if they’re an item. “Maybe a thing,” my daughter’s best friend shrugs.
We start off along the trail, and the girls all don their sunglasses. “Take a picture, take a picture,” they beg. I gather them into a group, and they pose like seasoned supermodels. With the sun behind them, they glow. Queen Bee is right in front.
I hang back as we walk through the marsh and watch as they spot turtles and snakes and bull frogs. My daughter floats from one cluster of girls to another. She has a clear best friend, but seems pretty tight with everyone. I am happy to see how happy and assured she looks. Her dark hair is streaked with bright crimson highlights, and as she darts through the crowd, I’m reminded of the red-winged blackbird we saw at the beginning of the hike.
The girls squeal like preschoolers when a family of geese paddle by. I snap a pic of the fluffy goslings. “Hey,” says Queen Bee, coming to stand by me, “will you text that to me?” I compliment her shoes. She confesses she had to borrow them from her mom: “My puppy chewed up my sneakers last night.” She sticks with me as we walk on, asking me questions about my second-grade son and where I got my earrings. I can see she’s hiding from Mr. Prom King.
Eventually she wanders off, and my daughter and her best friend dash over. “What do you think of her?” they want to know. I say she seems nice. “She is,” they say, “but she, like, straightens her hair and wears lip gloss.”
It strikes me that while Queen Bee is stunning, she may already think she’s not pretty enough the way she is. I’m grateful my daughter isn’t there yet; I can’t even get her to use the grapefruit face scrub I bought. I instantly regret my initial dislike. Queen Bee is just a kid, and from what I can tell, she’s both pleased and uneasy about the attention her looks bring. Maybe she wishes she could freeze time too.
As we reach the end of the trail, our leader spots a muskrat among the reeds. The kids crowd around to see. I watch my little group of girls balancing on the edge of the boardwalk, the sun flashing off the shades they think make them look so cool, and I fight the urge to pull them back.