(Author’s note: All the names have been changed, blah, blah, blah.)
At the middle school there is a gaggle of sixth- and seventh-grade girls I commonly refer to as “the crowd”. They are almost all Mexican, and, like a flock of birds, they generally move about as a single entity, flitting from activity to activity in our after-school program, clucking and crowing and henpecking. Their numbers shrink and swell according to a fickle physiological condition known as adolescence, by which certain members of the flock gain or lose esteem more or less at random. It is a gregarious group, this “crowd”, but only if you’re cool enough to gain admittance. Also, it helps to speak Spanish.
More than three weeks ago the crowd decided they wanted to throw a spring break party during their last day of program. The party, which was to be titled “Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring!”, would also coincide with a fellow crowd-mate’s—Nina’s—birthday. The party planners, Mandy, Janelle, and Sandra, approached my boss with their petition. It would be a surprise party for Nina, masquerading as a spring ball. Carefully considered choices for location, time, guest list, snacks, refreshments, music, and decorations were lobbied for. These girls clearly knew how to party. Ultimately, my boss greenlit the plan and handed them the reins. The doyennes had put a lot of thought into this, and the legwork would be up to them.
Three days ago, the fateful moment arrived. It was a Thursday afternoon, during the last bit of after-school programming before spring break. I was assigned to supervise the party set-up in the cafeteria, a task I approached with extreme apprehension. The doyennes claimed that essentially all of the crowd—almost twenty girls, barring Nina of course—were needed for preparatory work, and this too was greenlit by the boss. I found myself surrounded by a bevy of ecstatic preteen females, hanging sheets of colored tissue paper over the windows for ambiance. The doyennes fussed over the food spread, arranging everything just so. Hopes were high, and the cafeteria looked downright festive.
But then the party started, and the crowd erupted into what I can only describe as internecine warfare. First, Nina was M.I.A. This prompted the girls to cluster by the entrance to the cafeteria, bickering with one another about who had been appointed to inform her. They wanted to search the campus, but I couldn’t let them wander off unsupervised. Thus I became the enemy, but fortunately I have inured myself to the little pinpricks of middleschooler dagger-eyes. “She’ll be here, you guys. I’m sure she’s on her way.” My words did little to console them. “This is the worst party ever,” Sandra said petulantly, crossing her arms. “Nina isn’t here, and so-and-so isn’t here, and so-and-so said he wasn’t coming…” I told them again how amazing their set-up was, how they had transformed the cafeteria into a vernal den of festivity, but my praise fell on deaf ears. “No, this isn’t how it was supposed to be!” bleated Janelle, and the crowd agreed.
Finally Nina showed up, and she looked genuinely surprised. Some of the after-school staff showed up too, so I was free to mingle with the crowd. Perhaps forty kids were milling about, snacking, forming various cliques, watching one another. No one was dancing, of course, but this wasn’t for lack of music—no, it was that strange ailment again: adolescence. I doled out ice cream and eavesdropped on the chatter. “So-and-so’s eating all the Doritos!” someone hissed. “Yeah, and did you see how big her slice of cake was?” I tried polling the partygoers at random. “So, sweet party, right?” I asked Layla, one of the lower doyennes, as I filled her cup with Western Family Cookies ’n Cream. “Yeah, right?” she replied ultra-sarcastically, and I laughed at her scorn.
As far as I could tell, the party was a success. Nothing terrible happened, no one cried, and there was almost enough food to go around. I thought it was fun, but what do I know? I had adolescence once, but the memory eludes me.