Photo: Anne Lawrence, A different playground, 2021

She closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath. The story came out in long chunks of narrative, interrupted by details and observations that jumped us forward or backward in the timeline that she was slowly unspooling. It took over an hour on a gray Saturday morning to unwind the events from that infamous Friday. It had started as a game. Playing pretend. But it devolved and then spun out of control. There were sides taken, speeches were given, troops rallied, and a siege. She described huddling with her friends at the top of the playground as wave after wave came.

I sat enraptured and tried not to interrupt too much, just enough to make sure I understood, but I didn’t want to break her flow. She embodied the story as she told it, raising her voice, welling up with tears, bringing it down to a whisper; slowly peeling back the layers and reconstructing the events. She drew diagrams, we looked at Google Earth to plot locations. She described the characters, the motivations, the dialogue, all of the important minutiae needed to feel like I was really there. It was important to her that I understand. For her, the story was epic.

What happened? I can’t say, it’s her story. Instead, I can comment on the sheer energy and raw emotion that comes out when the social rules in elementary school crack open, when all of the tides of justice and hero, victim, or bully collide. The play that started as pretend became a story that pushed the kids into roles that animated behaviors, more and more extreme. Actions were set in motion that later seemed inevitable: the tension, the rumor, the mob, storming the playground. By the end, the narrative had transcended the ordinary skirmish and entered the sphere of high drama, defining lore. Everything up to this day was before; now we were in the after.

It had been just over a week since the siege at the Capitol in D.C. on January 6, 2021. We had talked about it at home as a “temper tantrum” thrown by adults. She didn’t think it made much sense because you never get what you want that way. Her favorite subject at school was Texas history. At night, she would catch me up on what was happening, who was doing what, and what that meant. I couldn’t wait to find out how it would end, Texas, a state? No way! In January, they were studying the Alamo, arguably one of the most famous sieges in U.S. history. It was as if, for a moment all of the anger, fear, and rage from history, from current events, and from childhood converged in one place at one time. It was terrifying and electrifying.

Children learn through play, that’s its function. As a witness to the story, I felt awe at the sheer intensity of the event. I wonder what they learned that day?

Photo: Anne Lawrence, A different playground, 2021

Writer, researcher, observer