Photo by Antti T. Nissinen.
Photo by Antti T. Nissinen.

When you sign up to be a mentor, you can’t help but imagine what the child will be like before you meet him or her. I think most Bigs hope they will be paired with a Little who is outgoing but thoughtful, creative but humble, cute, but mature. Needless to say, this child most likely does not exist. On a recent Saturday, I, along with a group of Big Sibs from the Class of 2016, drove down to City Invincible Charter School in Camden, New Jersey to meet our Littles. We quickly learned that our mentees were not the children we expected them to be, but they were familiar. The kids on the City Invincible playground were just like the children from our own elementary school days. Some were funny, some were quiet, and some were prima donnas.

I was playing foursquare with a shy, Hello-Kitty clad girl, when I heard a sharp, piercing voice ring out across the pavement. The girl dropped the dusty bouncy ball and rolled her eyes. I knew that look. It was a face I made many a time when my hopscotch game was rudely interrupted. It seemed the queen of the playground had decided it was time to call all her minions to court. I followed Hello-Kitty as she dragged her feet over to the corner of the parking lot, where a pint-sized girl with a fountain of curls stood with her hand on her hip. Even as I approached her, I began having flashbacks to my own days on the playground, when Emily, the blonde diva of my childhood, would call us all over by snapping her fingers and stomping her Sketcher-clad foot. As we all gathered around the child who appeared to be the ringleader of the City Invincible girls, hereafter referred to as Diva, it became apparent that not much had changed since my own days on the playground.

Diva had managed to assemble a group of ten third grade girls and an equal number of college freshmen girls. She did not bother to introduce herself, because she expected that we already knew who she was. And, in a way, we did. While every playground has a slightly different culture, there is always a diva. There is always one little girl who influences all the others, who makes the trends, and identifies the outliers. In my school, it was Emily, and at City Invincible, it’s Diva.

We all stood in a semi-circle awaiting instruction. It seemed Diva was ready to appraise the newcomers. She decreed that, to determine our worth, we would have to prove ourselves by “breaking it down.” I was instantly terrified. In my days, we had dance competitions but they did not involve hip shaking and booty popping. I was more of the “robot” school of dance (yes, I was a nerdy child). I knew that “breaking it down” was outside of my skill set. The other Bigs seemed slightly intimidated as well, but when Diva said it was time to start showing our stuff, we all bent our knees and swiveled to the non-existent music. We may justify our compliance as a means of entertaining our Littles, but I think the truth is that we were all scared of Diva’s wrath. Even Diva’s Big seemed daunted by her orders. (She tried to slip away from the group, but Diva ran after her and dragged her back.) In retrospect, it is rather concerning that we all bent to Diva’s whims so easily. Did we really need the approval of this child? Are we all that fearful of rejection? I guess so, because we all danced, looking up fearfully at our leader fro approval. Diva must have been in a generous mood, because we all made the cut.

At this point, Diva commanded that we all learn a choreographed dance. As Diva taught us a dance and chant, which referenced bras, booty shaking, and “dropping it low,” I looked to the girl standing beside her. She occasionally tapped Diva on the shoulder to give advice or suggestions, but she never raised her voice above a whisper. As Diva demonstrated what she called “a professional example,” the girl hung back, watching her friend. Diva consulted the girl before each dance, but she was never introduced. In fact, Diva ignored her once the dance instruction began. If Emily was like Diva, then I was like this little girl.

When I was in second grade, my own diva Emily and I would create and teach choreographed dances. I was an avid fan of Britney Spears and N’sync, and so I was familiar with their routines. I was not an adept performer, but I taught Emily everything I knew. (She was not allowed to watch music videos.) In exchange, I earned her favor. At the beginning of recess, we would hold a secret meeting on the steps to the cafeteria. We would select certain existing, bizarre playground chants and retool them, adding and exchanging lines and, of course, coming up with dance moves to accompany them. I worked for weeks on one particular dance, which included a balance beam routine (In lieu of a balance beam, we used the curb.) and a sequence of stomps and claps. At the end, the dancers flashed some jazz hands and shouted, “And BOOM with the attitude!” It was my brainchild, my pièce de resistance, and my source of pride. Emily promised we could teach it the other girls together.

The next day, when recess rolled around, Emily informed me that we didn’t need to teach the girls the routine because she had already pitched the dance to the choir teacher and they were going to incorporate it into the upcoming concert. I was not a member of the choir, but I attended the concert several weeks later. On the program, Emily was noted as the sole choreographer. I was crushed. I vowed never to choreograph again. That’s right, if it weren’t for Emily I might be crafting dances for the likes of Rihanna.

On the surface, City Invincible is nothing like my suburban elementary school, but it seems that all playgrounds are fundamentally the same. Despite changing pop culture, young girls continue to want to dance and sing, and, on every playground, there is a girl who calls the shots. I should have known better than to fall into the trap of yet another diva, but I couldn’t help it. Divas are allowed to be bitchy because they are charismatic, because they are fun, because they lead you in dances that make you feel confident. The girl at City Invincible was able to manipulate my peers and me, even though we are supposed to be too mature to be affected by such queen bees. We may not be children any longer, but we still want to have fun and be acknowledged by our peers. We all secretly want to be the diva of recess.

In the politics of the playground, the loudest and sassiest reign supreme. Diva’s lackey and I will probably never be recognized for our achievements on the foursquare court or our ability to “shake what our momma gave us,” but, in the end, the world is a bigger place than your elementary school playground. People like Emily and Diva may seem larger than life, but when you take them out of recess, they seem smaller. I recently ran into Emily over break, and I was surprised to see that she had grown up to be a thoroughly normal, un-diva-like college student. She had seemed like celebrity in my youth, a future Christian Aguilera or Lindsey Lohan, but now she seemed boring. Perhaps all playground ringmasters peak early. If that’s true, I am happy that I was not a playground diva. I think I would like to reach my fullest, charismatic potential at another time, far away from a jungle gym.