For the third time that evening, my 11-year-old daughter Wendy hung up the phone, her face as sad as one of those Greek theater masks (the sad one). Actually, she didn’t “hang up” the phone. To turn it off, you just push a button and set it down any old place. It’s a typical teenagers phone. To look at this device, you’d never know it’s an instrument of torture.

The green phone chirped and I heard Wendy say, “Well I don’t care what she said! Yvonne hates me, and you shouldn’t believe her.” Then she said, As if! and poked the hang-up button as though she were putting out someone’s eye.
The phone chirped again – the fifth time in 10 minutes – and I snatched it up, playing goalie. “Is this Mr. Richard Epstein?”

It was the public radio station calling to complain about the $25 donation I’d sent. “Do you realize that basic membership costs $35?” the patient man said. “Without that level of support we cannot continue to provide the quality programming that you have been enjoying.” The word “freeloader” was unspoken, but it hung heavy in the wires between us, like a fat hobo in a hammock. I promised him minimal satisfaction. (I would still be $15 shy of getting a free coffee mug, but I might win a cruise to Antarctica.)

The phone chirped in my hand. It was one of Wendy’s girlfriends wanting to continue the argument, “C’n I speak to Wendy?”

“Talk to her in school tomorrow face-to-face,” I said. “She may want to take a swing at you.”

“Huh?!”

“Seriously, you aren’t going to settle anything tonight. So give it a rest. Good night.”

Fifth-grade girls. There’s nothing like them. Except maybe rattlesnakes.

Back when our oldest daughter, Marie, was in fifth grade, a girl who had been her pal since preschool moved back into our school district. Courtney, the queen bee, declared the newcomer goofy and uncool. She told Marie, “You have to decide whether you are our friend or hers.”

Marie sided with her old friend and was shunned by the group. Later Courtney decided the new girl was really OK, and Marie was abandoned and friendless. I was proud of Marie, but that didn’t help much. There was lots of weeping in our house before Marie buddied up with three other outcasts. One day at recess Courtney confronted Marie and her new friends and demanded, “Stop copying our smile!”

When our second daughter, Sally, was in fifth grade, she too would bring home stories of wicked witchcraft. A girl named Amanda was the one stirring the brew, but Sally’s self-assurance was her protection. She consorted with Amanda, but as soon as she was old enough to branch out a bit, she sought other friends from other towns.

Now it’s Wendy’s turn in the cauldron. Our third-born child has self-esteem issues. She’s the one who, in second grade, claimed, “The teacher gives me extra homework because I’m so ugly.” So Wendy is prime witch-bait.
Her best fiend, Brianne, is an only child of doting parents. She may be the only girl in town with a mirrored disco ball in her bedroom. She has a cat, a dog, a hamster, tropical fish, a swimming pool, a smart phone, loads of computer games, an enormous TV set and shelves of lava lamps. There’s a refrigerator in her room! On Friday nights, her parents take Brianne and a friend out for sushi, and in the summer they take Brianne and a friend to someplace fancy for two weeks. Being Brianne’s bosom buddy is to ride a wave of luxury and fun. But you have to watch your back.

Julius Caesar had Brutus; Wendy has Yvonne. Yvonne is mean enough to rule the fifth-grade girls, but she doesn’t have the status or the panache. So this little virus calls up Brianne and says, “Wendy is saying nasty things about you!” Brianne believes her and the cell towers sizzle. Once when Yvonne managed to keep Wendy out of a sleep-over party at Brianne’s, Yvonne phoned Wendy from the festivities to say, “We’re having the time of our lives!”

I advise Wendy: “Just wait; soon Yvonne will be so busy tormenting boys she won’t have time for you.”

Meanwhile the fifth-grade boys are blissfully oblivious. They are playing video games, watching TV, riding bikes, playing soccer and throwing rocks. To them, the ways of girls are as uninteresting as they are mysterious. A thoughtful boy would notice that these girls are sharpening their claws on each other and make a wild guess as to whom their future scratching posts will be. But boys’ minds aren’t that nimble, and they are spared some anxiety. It’s a mercy really. •