I pressed a button on the answering machine, and an imperious voice demanded: "Sally, this is Amanda. Call me right away. It's important." Hoping to delete the child, I pressed another button. But the machine lacked the power for the job.
Amanda is the queen of the fifth grade. But she is not a benevolent queen. Her throne-room is littered with the bodies of her social inferiors. Sally brings home tales of Amanda's snippy cruelty.
"I have a new puppy," Matt announces at recess.
"No one CARES about your PUPPY, Matt," says Amanda acidly, and her worshippers turn their attention elsewhere as Matt, suddenly smaller than a Chihuahua, wonders when fifth-graders quit caring about puppies.
So why do Sally and the rest of the fifth-grade girls want to be around Amanda? Well, she's cute. She has lots of trendy clothes with the right labels. Her mother takes her to Paris and London. She and her friends get to watch R-rated movies in her attic playroom, and she has a two-story playhouse with electricity and a screened-in porch. A sleepover there is a glimpse of bachelorette paradise.
Plus, Amanda is Cool. With flashes of Cold. When Sally spends a lot of time with Amanda, she comes home and makes emotional mince-meat out of her little sister Wendy, putting her down, making her feel stupid. Of course, when she brings Amanda home, Amanda does the mincing up of little Wendy herself.
"Dad, can Amanda sleep over?" Sally asked one Friday.
"I don't know," I said, trying to come up with a reason to keep her away. A flash of inspiration: "What do YOU think, Wendy?"
"No!" said 6-year-old Wendy. "Amanda calls me a brat and is mean to me."
"Dad!" said Sally, "You're not going to let HER decide, are you?"
"Yep," I said. "Wendy LIVES here. This house is her sanctuary. We're not going to let an outsider come in and make her feel bad."
"I don't want Amanda," said Wendy. "Get Melissa to sleep over." Melissa is a kind and polite kid whose parents are plainly in charge of her.
Sally said, "That's not fair!" and invited no one.
When Sally wants to sleep over at Amanda's, we say no. I want to tell her why, but my wife says if we do, Sally will tell Amanda, and Amanda will tell her mom, then diplomatic relations between the two families will be strained, and the next thing you know we'll start sinking each other's ships, as we are drawn inexorably into a war that none of us really wants.
Of course, Amanda isn't my kids' first bad friend. When our oldest daughter Marie was 3, she was discovered by a neighborhood 4-year-old named Heather, who suddenly was coming into our house four or five times a day. She would walk right in without knocking and order a little something to eat or drink. We seldom obeyed her, so she regarded my wife and me as her lazy servants.
Heather liked to frighten Marie with scary stories about monsters and rabid possums, and drag her into games she didn't want to play. Whether they were here or at Heather's, when I'd check on them, I'd often find Heather berating Marie in classic shrew pose, leaning forward, hands on hips. Marie would be looking at the ground, shamefaced. (Fact: Heather's bicycle was painted black and its model name was "Li'l Dominator.")
I made a new rule: They had to play at our house. That way Marie could consult us when Heather was out of line. One afternoon Marie came out of her room and said, "Heather wants me to be the baby in our game and I don't want to."
"Just tell her what you think," I said.
"But every time I want to talk, she's already talking," she said.
We consulted and then Marie marched back into her room and said, "Heather, you think you're the boss of everyone, but you're the boss of no one."
For once Heather had nothing to say. She flounced out the door, mounted the Li'l Dominator and rode home. She stayed away for two hours. In ensuing years, Heather's malignant bossiness was complemented by a flair for malicious gossip. And when Marie would come back from visiting her, she'd bring a surly attitude. Heather would go in and out of fashion as Marie's pal, until adolescence when they finally went their separate ways. I hope that happens with Amanda.
One day last week I was walking Sally home from school, quizzing her about this and that. "So, who would you say is your best friend?"
"Melissa," she said.
"Good," I said, handing her a dollar bill.
Her look said: !??
"For having such good taste in friends," I explained.
Maybe I don't have the intelligence for subtle manipulation, but I have money and opinions - and I'm not afraid to use them.