Portrait of a Ten-Year-Old Girl
The first decade in the life of a Canadian girl
Caitlyn pinto is a happy person, and a known butt slapper. The happiness is overt, but she is stealth about the butt slapping, according to her friends, who are legion. She will sneak up so you don’t even know she’s there, then—whack! On a related note, Caitlyn is prone to laugh attacks, which build like a breeze into a tornado: “Ahha…ahha…a…ha…ahahahahahah!” Her friends sometimes record these giggle fits on an iPod touch and play them back later, which inevitably causes Caitlyn to laugh harder, and that makes for a perfect circle of hilarity.
Caitlyn is ten years old and four feet seven inches tall, a little shorter than her friend Raha, and a lot shorter than her friend Ileana. She lives in the prosperous suburban neighbourhood of York Mills in Toronto, on a tree-lined street of well-tended mid-century-style brick houses with SUVs and minivans in the driveways. In her sunny house, girls are outnumbered: there is Caitlyn; her mom, Jen Noronha, a nuclear engineer; her dad, Neil Pinto, who runs his own computer connectivity company; and her two older brothers. The dog, Hailey, is female; but the lizard, Lightning, is male. The brothers, Tyler, thirteen, and Ryan, fourteen, are excellent students at their private Catholic high school, and they play soccer and hockey, and Xbox and FIFA Soccer (boring). Caitlyn sighs: “I have two brothers who don’t really communicate about their lives.” Then she smiles. It is an excellent smile, lighting first in the eyes, then turning dimpled and expansive, and accompanied by a giggle.
By virtue of having two educated, working parents who earn well above the median two-parent household income of $84,400 before tax, Caitlyn is relieved of the stresses many Canadian kids face, like the one in seven who live below the poverty line. In other statistical ways, though, she is typical: she lives with both parents in an urban area in the country’s most populous province, and is a part of the Statistics Canada prediction that two decades from now 63 percent of Torontonians will be “visible minorities.” By the time Caitlyn is a majority, she’ll be twenty-eight.
Caitlyn had her ears pierced at Fairview Mall when she was seven, both at the same time, so it would hurt less. She likes to paint her nails blue or purple, and she just got a new magnetic nail polish, whatever that means. This interest in nails might make her a girly-girl, but she’s not sure: some days, she feels girly (leggings); some days, she doesn’t (sweatpants). She has never won anything in Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win contest, and this is annoying, despite the deliciousness of hot chocolate. She can cook, but only soup and scrambled eggs and mac ’n’ cheese and popcorn. She stopped believing in the tooth fairy last year when her mom forgot to put out money two nights in a row. She is a good student in the gifted program at school, though her mom would like her to focus more on her grades and socialize a bit less. Her body is still a child’s body, but softening. Curves are approaching.
Ten is in between. Developmental psychologists see the year as a liminal zone between childhood and adolescence, where kids are finding their critical, autonomous voices but still depend on adults for guidance, intellectual and emotional. Their worlds broaden. Friendships become more complicated, and more important. Ten-year-olds are also known for being really, really silly.
G. Stanley Hall, a developmental psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, famously declared that adolescence is a time of “storm and stress”—Sturm und Drang—the chaotic emotional shift from hormonal beast to civilized citizen. Eleven marks physical transformation (this usually happens to girls about eighteen months earlier than to boys, which makes grade seven school dances anthropologically fascinating and personally hellish), along with, for some, the beginning of conflict with parents. Girls, especially, begin to separate from their mothers. It’s the pushing back that anticipates the inevitable breaking away, but right now Caitlyn and her mom are super-close, because of the outnumbered-by-boys thing, and because her mom is funny and smart and they sometimes get pedicures.
As early as the 1960s, other scientists were discrediting Hall’s anxious idea, yet the pop culture image of youth in revolt endures, and adult anxieties over a world in flux trickle down onto our kids, whom we judge for growing up too fast, too wired, too different.
Girls have elicited a specific type of hand-wringing. The perceived wisdom for the past two decades suggested that modern girls, as American therapist Mary Pipher wrote in the international bestseller Reviving Ophelia in 1994, were losing themselves, passively floating away down the stream of life, like Hamlet’s Ophelia. Once they hit adolescence, Pipher posited, girls raised their hands less in class, and suppressed their inner voices in favour of being good and attracting boys. All of this left them susceptible to depression and eating disorders, self-mutilation and drugs—another variation on Sturm und Drang.
Authors, educators, and Spice Girls have proposed ways to rescue girls from these dark, inert futures, and in some ways the girl power ethos seems to have borne fruit. In 1971, women made up just 32 percent of Canada’s university graduates between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, and now it is men who are outnumbered, 60–40. In 2009, for the first time, there were more female employees in the workforce than male. Sociologists note that the post-industrial market seems perfectly suited for skills stereotypically deemed “female,” such as empathy and collaboration. When the ranks of unemployed men swelled after the 2008 recession, pundits declared “the end of men,” also the title of a much-discussed book by journalist Hanna Rosin. It’s as if Ophelia’s revival means Hamlet’s death.
Caitlyn will not enter a workforce of perfect equality, though. The average Canadian woman’s employment earnings are still lower than a man’s, even with the same level of education. When it comes to corporate leadership, women remain extremely under-represented, holding just 5.7 percent of the top positions at Canada’s largest 500 corporations, and making up only 14.5 percent of board directors. Ophelia is doing okay, but Hamlet is doing better.
Anxious times have given rise to an anxious parenting culture. Families with means are determined to give their children the widest spectrum of experience, a chance to try on all types of selves before entering the uncertain future. Caitlyn’s schedule is packed: soccer, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, horseback riding, homework, library monitor duty, and a social calendar of play dates that makes Michelle Obama look as if she’s taking it easy.
To be ten today in a world like Caitlyn’s is to be well schooled in the language of sensitivity. She is anti-bullying and pro-self-esteem. She is concerned about the environment and where the garbage goes. She is also in a constant state of revision.
Start with the bedroom, which we do, on a cold Sunday afternoon in February, after Caitlyn returns from church. She explains that the room used to be pink and purple. Gone are the fairy wallpaper, the curtains with flowers. Now the colour scheme is blue and white. Her new bed has a shelf in the headboard for knick-knacks: a miniature rock canoe sculpture she built with her grandmother; a stuffed Pegasus; and several books from the Horse Mad series, about girls with names like Ashleigh Miller who have adventures at riding academies in Australia. “When I changed my room, my brothers were like, Caitlyn, Oh my God. What did you do? Who are you? ” she says, bouncing up and down so the pompoms on her fuzzy cheetah print slippers fly around.
Magazine cut-outs of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and One Direction are Scotch taped to the wall of Caitlyn’s little adjacent bathroom. People tease her about Justin Bieber, who is now officially uncool, but she doesn’t care, because she watched the documentary about him and saw that he overcame a lot of challenges. Also, he’s a really good musician, and Caitlyn loves music. Last fall, her friend Mackenzie got backstage passes through her grandfather and invited Caitlyn to a Justin Bieber concert at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Just before the show, they lined up for a meet-and-greet backstage with about 500 other girls. It was hot, and they were tired and thirsty. Then they got led into a backroom with five other girls, and in front of the velvet curtains stood Justin Bieber. “There he was, just like, ‘Hi.’ And then you’re just staring at him like, ‘What’s happening? ’ You were kind of like, ‘Is this a dream? ’ You don’t know what’s going on, and then—click!” She makes a camera-snapping gesture. “Done.”
There are many things she is less into than she used to be, a list that includes pastels, soccer, and One Direction. Her pastels sit on a little table in a bag that looks like a makeup kit. “I used to love doing art,” says Caitlyn. But not anymore? She considers the question. “I don’t know why I said that. Maybe I am into art.”
These moments of introspection don’t happen often, and perhaps I project more meaning onto them than is there, sensing loss because I, in my middle age, know how fleeting this breathless moment is, even if Caitlyn doesn’t. After spending one afternoon with her, I go home and look up a poem about the passing of youth called “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? ” Caitlyn isn’t grieving yet. She is still mostly just a kid, unburdened and loud, oblivious and hilarious, packing more bubbly chatter into five minutes than most grown-ups do in a month.
Standing in her bedroom, she tells me how much she loves horses. Then she offers me a piece of mint chocolate chip–flavoured gum, promising that it’s not disgusting. While she’s chewing hers, she suddenly snaps her fingers loudly: “Hey, I can snap! I could always do it, but now I can hear it!” She shows me a giant sombrero that her dad got her and declares it funny. Then she takes me downstairs to the living room, sits at the grand piano, and plays “Baby” by Justin Bieber, pounding the keys and beaming.
According to the Fraser Institute, the average income of parents who send their kids to Denlow Public is $145,400, two-thirds above the national median. The school scores well on provincial standardized tests, and Fraser gives it a 9.6/10 rating for academic achievement, making it one of the top-rated schools in Ontario for the past five years. The phrase “sought-after Denlow School district” is featured in Toronto real estate listings, and bidding wars are the norm whenever a house comes up for sale. Caitlyn’s mom notes that some Denlow kids will, like Caitlyn’s brothers, go on to private school.
From the outside, Denlow looks a little like a cinder-block parking garage. It is grey, with portables edging the field behind the school, which is dotted on this March afternoon with melting snowman carcasses. Yellow school buses fill the parking lots, while mothers, fathers, and caregivers hover in the schoolyard, waiting for pickup. Caitlyn’s classroom is in one of the portables, and on the chalkboard is a lesson about graphing. Desks are arranged in groups of five (Caitlyn’s is the messiest, she notes with a little pride). At 3:30 p.m., she and a bunch of other kids spill out the door, tumbling like gum balls from a machine. One boy is wearing sunglasses and a fedora. Caitlyn’s classmates are a racially mixed crew; 26 percent of the students at Denlow speak English as a second language.
Caitlyn announces to her mom, “I lost my water bottle again.”
Today is Wednesday, and Caitlyn’s mom, who arranges her work schedule around afternoon pickups, is in charge of the minor military operation required to get four kids from school to one girl’s house to eat and then into the city to rehearse with the Toronto Children’s Chorus. The acclaimed choir travels the world, and when you are in it you cannot wear jewellery or have your hair down. Whether it’s the Glee or American Idol effect, these ten-year-olds are musical extroverts. They burst into song so spontaneously and so often, it’s as if they are living inside their own Broadway show.
Caitlyn and her choir friends Jennifer, Julia, and Jamie (announces Julia, “We are the Three Js—and Caitlyn!”) walk ahead, side by side, leggings tucked into their fur-lined winter boots, with miniature stuffies and water bottles dangling from their backpacks. Caitlyn is wearing a knit hat that looks like an owl.
They sit at the kitchen table at Jamie’s house, because it’s close to the school, though it is Caitlyn’s mom’s turn to feed them. She has brought chicken fingers in plastic containers. Three of the girls are wearing Aéropostale sweatshirts, but they also like Abercrombie and Hollister, even if those brands are more for teenagers. The sweatshirts are grey and black, chosen by the girls themselves, because if moms buy clothes, the clothes threaten to be poofy and flowery—ergo girly-girl. Which is ugh.
They eat their chicken fingers, granola bars, and Rice Krispie squares before loading into the Pintos’ Toyota Sienna minivan for the drive to choir practice at a church in midtown Toronto. Being a ten-year-old in suburbia means being schlepped around a lot in cars. Caitlyn is allowed to walk to a friend’s house alone (parents call or text arrivals and departures), and to walk the dog alone. Earlier this year, the police reported that an eight-year-old girl from Denlow was grabbed by a stranger. The girl got away, but Jen and Neil decided they would continue driving Caitlyn the few blocks to and from school. Her brothers, who did walk alone in grade five, let it be known that this was grossly unfair.
Once the van hits the highway, the girls agree that it is okay to toss their apple cores out the window because of biodegrading. There is something about the acoustics of a minivan that can convert the sound of four girls talking into the fevered screams of a swarm of Occupy protesters confronted with Donald Trump. The voices pile on top of one another, throwing out pop culture references, schoolyard news updates, and the occasional snippet of the song “Thrift Shop.”
Wizards of Waverly Place was good, but it’s over. Julia’s dad’s friend is the dad of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Adam Levine is awesome, as is Tayla (Taylor Swift). What is Saturday Night Live anyway? Russell Peters is hilarious. Here is an iPod touch that shows some street art from Brazil on Instagram. When is the theory test? The choir concert last weekend was awesome, except for when that boy’s phone went off during a Serbian folk song.
Wait, I interject: “Boys? ” Impossibly, this single word brings up the decibels.
Jennifer yells, from the back row, “They have cooties,” to which Jamie, next to her, replies, “Yeah, we’re still on that. They’re still just scary.”
Jennifer: “Dating is in grade seven. You’re lovey-dovey, then you get married.”
Julia: “You know what I noticed in the movies? When a guy pulls a girl’s hair, they end up liking them, and then they end up marrying them.”
Caitlyn: “The moral is, don’t pull anyone’s hair.”
There is some off-the-record discussion of who is cute, and whether or not what has been happening with Jennifer qualifies as a boyfriend, though Caitlyn is pretty quiet during these debates. She does agree that, basically, boys are to be avoided. Although, well, in fact…lately…okay, so at lunch there is this thing some kids play…you spin a bottle. Whoever it lands on gets to ask a truth or dare. Not much truth is happening yet. Somebody dared somebody to lick a wall. Someone else dared a guy to pee on an orange, and he totally did it. (Caitlyn hasn’t played the game.)
Suddenly, a collective scream rises, forming a perfectly synchronized quartet: “Cemetery!” To the east is the sprawling green of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where such prominent Canadian families as the Masseys, the Westons, and the Jackmans bury their dead.
And then the strangest thing: silence. The girls are holding their breath, longer and longer, cheeks puffed and reddening, bobbing in their seats until finally—whoosh, a mass exhale, and an explosion of laughter. Caitlyn explains: “We hold our breath so the evil spirits don’t possess us.” And then she laughs: “Ahahahahaha…!”
“Laugh attack!!!” scream the Three Js.
Suddenly, the minivan pulls up at the church. The girls gather their bags and water bottles and rush the walkway, singing. No one looks back at the minivan.
Caitlyn’s mother, Jen, was born to Indian parents in Nairobi, where her father was a communication station manager. Neighbouring Uganda, under the tyranny of Idi Amin Dada, expelled its Asian population in 1972, and in 1976, with tensions high, the family moved to Toronto. They left behind a rolling estate and servants for a modest rental apartment in suburban Don Mills while Jen’s father looked for work in engineering. Her mother couldn’t get her teaching credentials transferred from Africa, and she never taught again.
Jen was thirteen, and at her new Canadian Catholic school, being small and speaking with an accent was not a recipe for popularity. She heard racial slurs often and was beaten up once, and she didn’t make any friends for the first two years in Canada, until the family moved to Scarborough. Jen was a strong student, and she ended up at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, studying nuclear engineering. In her twenties, she was visiting a friend in California when she met Neil Pinto, who had completed his MBA at San José State University. He had been born and raised in India, and also had family roots in Goa, a former Portuguese outpost known for its Catholicism and sleepy villages with whitewashed churches. The couple dated long distance for months, and travelled in India together, back to the region so many of their family members had left. In a church in Neil’s village, they got engaged, and he agreed to follow Jen back to Toronto and start their life together there.
Like all families, Caitlyn’s runs on a patchwork of parental labour and improvisation. Neil, muscular and blunt talking, coaches soccer and does the hockey runs. When the kids were born, Jen was working long hours at a nuclear plant. As the owner of his own business, Neil did most of the child rearing, and a nanny helped. A couple of years ago, Jen switched companies and took a more flexible position as a director, which has enabled her to do pickups and drop-offs.
Neil is still the preferred family cook, and dinners are crammed in around sports and activities, with a lot of Japanese takeout. The family meal is on Sundays after church, when the kids sometimes make sushi together. Mutton curry is a favourite, but Indian food takes so long to cook that it usually happens at Jen’s mother’s house, where the kids will also rip through a whole curried crab each.
Though Toronto has the largest South Asian community in Canada (54 percent of the country’s South Asians live in the Greater Toronto Area), they are not so visible in York Mills. Like most cities, Toronto has ethnic enclaves, but Neil was adamant that the family not settle in Mississauga or Brampton, with their Hindu temples and strip malls of Indian restaurants. He wanted the kids to integrate, but Jen sometimes worries that there aren’t enough Indian kids around, and she is waging a not-so-secret campaign to rectify this, inviting over Indian friends with children around her kids’ ages, hoping relationships will take. This often results in eye rolling from the Pinto progeny.
Caitlyn says that racism, like bullying, is something she has heard about in school but has not seen up close. “I don’t think there’s racism at our school. I don’t know. But it’s not fair, because you can’t pick who you are, or how you look.” It is a lovely and true sentiment, and a sign of how safe her world is; she can look like a symbol of a “post-racial” generation in a way that a black ten-year-old in a low-income downtown family just can’t. Her good fortune keeps her innocent, and lengthens her childhood.
I ask her if she can speak any other languages, and she complains about her lousy French. What about her parents: do they speak other languages to her? We are in her bedroom, under the bleach white grin of the Justin Bieber poster, when she considers this question, then shouts into the hallway: “Mom, do you speak any other languages? ”
Jen, a floor below, calls, “Swahili.”
Caitlyn’s eyes widen. “Wow.” Then she calls, “What about Dad? ”
Again, from below: “Hindi and Urdu.”
She turns to me: “My dad speaks…Ooo-do? What is that? ”
Caitlyn visited Goa in grade one. She remembers fireworks on the beach at midnight on Christmas Eve, and dressing up as a flower girl at a cousin’s wedding.
She still goes to church most Sundays, sometimes red faced from soccer practice. She believes in God. Every night before she goes to sleep, she prays. This is intuitive. Ask her what God means, and she says, “I don’t get the question.” Then she goes to her closet and pulls out her communion dress, which is white and long, and quite elegant. The celebration took place at the Estates of Sunnybrook in North Toronto, and her parents wanted her to write her own speech. At seven, she did, scribbling it on a crumpled piece of paper. She only remembers the last line: “P.S.—The food down that aisle really makes your tummy smile.” Everyone laughed, which was the point.
At ten, social relationships are all consuming, filling the mental space and time that work does in adulthood. The brothers are not the best candidates for hanging out. Tyler, who is really smart, studies all the time, and Ryan (also soooo smart) acts like a teenager. Being a teenager means he stays in his room more, with the door shut, and Caitlyn is not allowed in as much as she used to be. The good news is, he’s minding less lately, and the other day she went in there and he even let her show him a magic trick.
The busy brothers mean that Caitlyn’s weekends include as many play dates as her schedule permits. Sunday, after soccer, four of her friends—Emi, Ileana, Raha, and Mackenzie—are in her basement, which contains a pool table and a flat screen TV, but all of the girls are gathered around the iMac. Last week, Caitlyn and Emi made a movie in which Caitlyn played a time-travelling British person. Now she is showing them a trailer she edited together with her cousins. Titles come up over creepy children’s choir horror movie music: Three Normal Cousins…Entered a House…Probably Haunted…
Jen brings the girls a tray of pink cookies, which they scarf down immediately, eyes on the computer, barely glancing at her.
If you are over thirty, then the idea of being ten in 2013 is a head scratcher. We can’t imagine a childhood so mediated by technology, though a ten-year-old can’t imagine a life without it. Their beloved grade five teacher, Ms. Silzer, admits that her students program her smart whiteboard and figure out apps for her.
Caitlyn has an iPod touch, which allows her to surf the Internet, though she uses it mostly for iMessage, and FaceTime, a kind of one-on-one video chat. She and her friends message several times a day, about dumb stuff: school, music, what are you eating, whatever. On Fridays, they group-message, with everyone texting online at once. The family rule is that Facebook is not allowed until grade seven, and Caitlyn is fine with that. After much discussion at school about cyberstalking and cyberbullying, the prospect of sharing too much in cyberspace makes her nervous. Friends talk about the suicide of Amanda Todd, the BC teen bullied so callously across the Internet and at school. Caitlyn has heard stories about grade seven girls being teased online, and this is scary: an electronic footprint fixes a young girl’s identity when she is most in flux, and it can’t be erased. “I like texting more than Facebook, because you know where it’s going. It’ll just go to one friend, and you can’t forward things.”
Like Caitlyn, the four girls in the basement are all in “gifted,” a strange and frequently bandied-about delineation, as in “He’s not gifted.” “She tried to get in gifted but didn’t.” The word makes my skin crawl (what kid doesn’t have gifts?), but when I ask Caitlyn what it means she has a generous perspective: “It just means you learn differently.” Being gifted also means a fair dose of screeching boys. “There’s a lot of ADD in our grade,” says Ileana, and everyone nods.
On that note—because a play date at age ten is a series of hairpin turns—the basement suddenly becomes a stage. Ileana, Emi, and Caitlyn stand side by side on the broadloom carpet and perform a medley of songs they put together as a wedding present to Ms. Silzer, who is getting married. She wanted them to sing her a Natalie Merchant song, to which they responded, Who is Natalie Merchant?
The three girls stand, with Caitlyn at the end, looking up a bit at her taller friends. They sway and rock, eyes sometimes closed, keeping the beat by lightly tapping their thighs as they sing Pink, Rihanna, the Beatles. Their voices are young and unbroken, with the slight vibrato of kids raised in the era of singing competition shows, but the lyrics belong to Rihanna, a supremely sexualized twentysomething: “Want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world…”
When it ends, there is a quick beat of self-consciousness—the only one I saw that afternoon—which causes an immediate eruption of interpretive dance. Emi and Ileana yell, “Watch!” Then they fall down cross legged and do a patty cake game that starts, “Down, down, baby,” and ends, “Education, liberation, I love you!” Emi adds, “We once did that 265 times in a row.”
Neil comes down the stairs, bringing a tray of water and some cups, along with more cookies. They barely acknowledge him, going right for the cookies. When he leaves, they indulge in what can only be called a little bout of gossiping, complaining about a kid who touches faces without asking, and coming down hard on a girl whom they find obsequious, a bit needy.
Later, Caitlyn observes, “Sometimes girls secretly hate each other, but they can’t physically hate, so they verbally do it.” This old idea is at the heart of Mary Pipher’s concern: that girls can’t express how they really feel, their authenticity weighed down by the expectation to be perfect.
Still, Caitlyn is very confident. She is not hard on herself, and she doesn’t seem to suppress anything. She says she feels pretty good about how she looks. Seeing Selena Gomez, the teen star (and Bieber’s ex) with the perfectly proportioned body, doesn’t make her feel bad. It’s more like, Hey, there’s Selena Gomez. She’s really pretty. I’m happy for her. Does Caitlyn feel pressure to be pretty? “Not yet,” she says.
The girls are like a brochure for the Canadian mosaic: Raha’s parents are Iranian; Emi is half-Japanese; Ileana was born in Romania and emigrated with her parents when she was one. They all ended up in York Mills, their ethnic differences blanketed by a kind of economic homogeneity. This is Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America, but just a calm, leafy corner of it, and the chaos of the world seems far away.
Kids know better. Already, at ten, they suspect that we are not leaving them with everything in place. Half of their lives have gone by during a global recession, and in Canada the gap between rich and poor has been growing for a generation already. They will not be immune, and in all likelihood will earn less than their parents and live more modest lives. If you ask them what they worry about, these ten-year-olds have a lot to say.
Ileana: “When I’m out, I’m scared of shootings. When I’m in a mall, I don’t feel safe.”
Emi: “I’m scared of malaria, because I go on tropical vacations and there are mosquitoes.”
Raha: “I’m scared of big dogs.”
Caitlyn: “I’m lucky because we’re not poor. We have families.” This gets a round of nods. It is agreed that pretty much everyone in Denlow is lucky, because there are orphans and kids out there with nothing.
Ileana, who seems inclined to take things to a darker level, observes, “Some kids have parents, but they’re abusive.”
Adds Caitlyn, “It annoys me when celebrities are like, ‘My dog broke his toe, and I’m so sad. My life is not perfect!’ And all the celebrities are like, ‘I got bullied when I was younger.’”
Then the volume increases, and sadness becomes a game of one-upmanship. Clearly, what is the nightly news to adults is an ongoing horror movie to kids.
Ileana: “I’m worried for middle school and high school, because that’s when you have suicidal thoughts.”
Caitlyn: “There was that guy on the bus who was eating someone’s face!”
Mackenzie: “There was that guy in Africa, Kony? He took kids and had them kill their parents—”
“That was last year,” says Ileana. “On YouTube.”
Mackenzie: “There was that guy who was cutting off people’s body parts and shipping them. He only did that because they were Asian.”
Then Caitlyn, cheerful Caitlyn, tops them all with a surprising, soft-spoken concern: “I’m scared of dying.”
“Poor Caitlyn!” says Emi, making a sad face. Caitlyn snaps to, back to her inherent lightness.
“Okay, too much sad stuff!” she announces. “Let’s make a movie.”
Every other saturday, Caitlyn spends the whole day at a stable in Aurora, Ontario, a forty-five minute drive from where she lives, out of Toronto and into sudden quiet. On those Saturdays, her favourites, her mother drops her off in the morning and picks her up before dinner. In between, Caitlyn rides English style. She also mucks out the stalls, pushing a wheelbarrow full of wood shavings between the barn and the horses.
When I visit on a cold Saturday, she is wearing riding pants and her owl hat. She leads me through the stables to her favourite horse, Tasha. A kitten seems to fall from the rafters, landing on Caitlyn’s shoulder. A few other girls, equally covered in dirt, are cheerfully completing their own tasks, feeding the ducks and chickens and sweeping. There are no boys or adults in sight.
Caitlyn wants me to meet Tasha, a flea-bitten grey, white with speckles. The horse nuzzles her hand, and Caitlyn feeds her a carrot. “She’s really sweet. She loves to canter, but she’s a bit on the lazy side. There’s this pony, Hudson, and I like his potential, but he won’t do what I tell him. He has a mind of his own. My perfect horse would have Tasha’s sweetness and Hudson’s potential.”
When she grows up, Caitlyn might want to be a veterinarian, or maybe a teacher. She will probably go to university in California, like her dad. One day, she would like to be married, and have a daughter so she could do her hair. When she is an adult, she will have more independence, which is the best thing about growing up. “The scary part is, when you’re a kid, everyone’s watching you to make sure nothing bad happens. But when you’re a grown-up, there’s no one really watching you.”
I ask her if she can picture what her life will be like when she’s an adult. “I can’t,” she says. “I’m not a grown-up person.”
The one certainty is a horse. She dreams of having her own, and if she can’t get one then she will find a way to keep riding. She feels something out there, a connection between her and the animal.
“I love a happy trail,” she says, smiling. It is such a sweet sentence, and at that moment I am relieved for her. The last lines of the Hopkins poem still haven’t found Caitlyn, and I want to freeze her in that open air, and keep at bay the inevitable recognition that this child self is passing, minute by minute, until it is gone forever: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” But not yet.
This appeared in the October 2013 issue.