The summer before third grade my dad got a new job in New York and my family moved to the Connecticut suburbs. I’d spent the past 18 months in Switzerland—one of few American kids—fumbling with crayons while my classmates wrote deftly with fountain pens. I imagined that moving back to the States would mean having friends again.
But, that first fall, while my classmates wore stirrup pants and oversized New Kids on the Block T-shirts, I was still wearing the plaid jumpers that had been the unofficial uniform of my Swiss-French school. When I finally made friends, it was with other girls on the periphery of an already hierarchical elementary school social life.
Maybe it was because none of my friends had any social capital, but the little power these girls had in our group of ragtag outsiders was manifest ruthlessly. Linda, another new girl who’d been my first friend in Connecticut and came to wear the other half of my best friend necklace, made a chart detailing who she’d sit with on the bus, at lunch, at recess, and after school. Although we had spent long summer days riding bikes between our houses and been friends with each other before anyone else would talk to us, I was allotted just one slot per week in the rotation. Linda was coltish and had perfect handwriting and could draw pictures that looked traced (an enviable skill in those days). I was overweight, often absent-mindedly chewing on the sleeve of my favorite grey sweatshirt, or picking at the mosquito bites I couldn’t stop itching.
I don’t remember who I sat with, traded stickers with, or jumped rope with on the days when my name wasn’t on Linda’s chart. I do remember crying most nights when my mom tucked me in. Linda and another girl named Laura had started calling me “Cow,” as a joking-but-of-course-not-joking nickname. Sometimes they called me “Fatso” in the same vein.
Finally, I worked up the courage—with help from my mom—to ask Linda and Laura to stop. I practiced saying “please don’t call me ‘Cow,’ it hurts my feelings” until I could keep my voice from shaking. At school the next day, eager to get this dreaded moment over with, I steadied myself and recited my rehearsed line as soon as we were in our classroom. I no longer remember which of them said “Sure,” and then after a long, deliberate beat, “we’ll call you ‘Calf.’”
My dad is retired now, but when he was still working at the job that brought us to Connecticut, he dressed in a suit every weekday morning before catching an early train to Grand Central in Manhattan. He’s from Missouri and sometimes when my friends from college would meet my family they’d say, “I didn’t know your dad was from the South.” Although I still never hear his accent, I took this to mean they’d also noticed his kind, calm inflection. Later still, when I had my first bosses and my own work politics to navigate, I saw how even-tempered and diplomatic he had always been—even in situations that might, with another kind of person, become tense. As an adult, I’ve tried to emulate the way he can disagree about politics, the Yankees, and even high-pressure work scenarios in a way that is invitation to a dialogue rather than the beginning of an argument.
The night of one of our school’s orchestra concerts, he’d taken an earlier train than usual and come right from work in his suit. On the way in, he held the door for our next door neighbor and asked after her father’s health.
Linda had been named concertmaster—the first seat in the first violin section—while I sat in the back of the viola section. After the concert, we milled around the lobby of our middle school, holding our rented instruments and looking for our parents by the punch and cookies. I was standing alone in a crowd of kids, near Linda and Laura, whom I was still considering my friends, but not quite with them. They’d been to my house and met my parents, and so they said, “Hello Mr. Parrish,” as my dad walked toward us.
He turned and let out a long, low moo.
I looked from Laura to Linda to my dad, then at my mom holding my baby brother. I swung my viola case by its handle as we turned and headed for the parking lot together. Linda and Laura’s parents hadn’t come to gather them yet, so there were no official repercussions, yet their confident assumption of power had melted into something I recognized as fear of being caught.
The next day at school, Linda and Laura stammered apologies. Linda said she was afraid my dad would sue her—but they stopped calling me Cow. The word bullying wasn’t yet part of PTA vocabulary. And, although I knew from the books I read and the stories my mom told me that middle school girls had the potential to inflict a special, calculated and immature kind of cruelty, at the time, it had just seemed an inevitable sadness that the girls I called my friends were not really and that even when I asked them to be superficially decent they would not.
I’ve thought a lot about the moo moment in the last 25 years. Since becoming a parent myself, I’ve often felt the emotions I imagine must have inspired that moo: a love fierce enough to be painful and a protective instinct strong enough to keep me up at night. I understand in a way now that my tears before bed were real sources of sadness for my parents. What my parents built for us is the same thing my husband and I are trying to build for our kids—a little armored unit of love against whatever life brings.
There are many ways a parent might have responded—telling a kid to toughen up, calling the school, calling the bullies’ parents—but my dad did something better. I’d told my parents about Linda and Laura, of course, but I hadn’t realized that while I was the only one sitting at my desk, trying not to chew nervously on my sweatshirt, we were in it together.
If I was a cow, then we were a family of cows.