Way back in the mid seventies, when I was five, I had a best friend - a boy called Michael. My most exciting play-mate - we were spies with walkie talkies, we parachuted little toys out of his bedroom window, we filched cup cakes from the freezer and de-frosted them in the sun. Michael’s family were American – lovely people. Their home was relaxed and easy to be in. His dad was an academic – some kind of researcher in computing. He was one of the few dads of my acquaintance that didn’t scare me – he spoke so softly, with a strong accent.
“Keep your bikes on the sidewalk, kids.”
His mum was studying part-time and loved to garden. He had a big sister who was quiet and studious.
One day when my brother had dropped me off at first school (like infants with an extra year) I found that it was closed because of a boiler emergency. I was seven or eight years old. With trepidation I crossed back to the middle school to look for my brother – but the kids had all gone inside. I was too scared to walk into the big school, so I was stuck. My mum was at work – half an hour walk away, across big roads. With a wobbly lip and enormous butterflies I decided that I’d go to Michael’s house – just a couple of minutes walk. I couldn’t reach to open his back gate, so I went up to the front door. It had a bell-pull – a round brass knob that you pulled and then pushed back. When Michael’s mum opened the door I was so relieved I burst into tears. She led me inside saying, over and over, “you did the right thing, you did the right thing.” She made me welcome and Michael and I played all day.
I never had an issue with the fact that Michael was a boy. I had two brothers at home – one of them my closest sibling in age – as well as boy cousins. Michael was sparky – in fact he had the kind of startlingly fast and analytical mind that causes many adults discomfort. In the playground at school we played Underground City and he developed an outdoor version of a computer game he had designed with his dad – called ‘Hunt the Wumpus’. Sometimes the dinner ladies would blow the whistle and we all stood still. They’d say that the boys were all being too rough and take Michael away to line up against the wall with the other boys. I was outraged on his behalf. When I tried to talk to the dinnerladies they’d just send me away to play with the girls.
Our friendship lasted all through first school without too much trouble. But once we were in middle school it got harder and harder. If we played together there were taunts from all directions, “he your boyfriend, then?” And it was constant. I found it unbearable – humiliating and inappropriate. So, I played with him less. He was lonely and pretty miserable, I think. Most of the other boys played football. I played with girls, which was fun – but I missed Michael. Then he went away to France for a year.
When Michael came back I was almost eleven. We still had two more years at middle school. We didn’t really play together at all any more. But we were both told that we would be going to ‘Middle Schools’ Orchestra’ – once a week, after school. I don’t remember making an arrangement, but Michael and I would leave school separately and meet up a few streets away. We’d walk down to orchestra together, go our separate ways (him to the percussion section and me to woodwind) and then casually meet up again afterwards. Michael told me to bring some money one week and introduced me to the joys of a chilli burger at a new burger place nearby. It was a good time. Then one day our class teacher announced to the class, with glee,
“I saw Annalie and Michael out together last night…”
“Whooo! Oooh… He your boyfriend, then??”
We were eleven. He was one of my oldest friends but I felt that everyone was determined that this should not and could not be so.
Soon we were at secondary school together. After a year or two the pressure to ‘get a boyfriend’ was intense. Who was the only boy I really liked? So, Michael and I ‘went out’ – not a great success! Another blow to our friendship – it was embarrassing to be around each other for a while.
Eventually, at about sixteen, we ended up in the same social group. In this big, mixed group we could actually be friends again. It was good to talk to him. He had a great sense of humour and a lot of talents. We used to go round to his house when the summer fruit came in and eat his family’s raspberry and redcurrant harvest, piled up on French crepes that Michael had learned to make in Brittany.
Michael went off to Cambridge, a doctorate at Oxford and now he works for Microsoft in Silicon Valley. I went to Leeds Uni, came back to Brighton and never left again.
Michael was a great friend. I am glad that we had a chance to re-kindle our friendship in our sixth form years but I wish we’d been free to let that friendship grow and develop throughout our childhood. If Michael had been a girl then I think we would have been given that freedom.
I don’t find it cute or funny when children barely out of nappies are referred to as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. I don’t like the ‘jokes’ and teasing. Quite apart from the assumptions being made about those children’s future gender identities and sexualities – it gives the message that there can be no real friendship between boys and girls, and so, presumably, men and women. That is certainly the message that I received (loud and clear) in my childhood. It also implies that the most significant fact about a person is their gender and helps to re-inforce a simplistic, rigid gender model. I don’t think that does anyone any favours – and for some children it is positively painful.
In our family we are noticing that the home educated children we know are not as rigidly divided on gender lines. Pearl, in particular, is not being harassed out of her friendships with boys. She is happy up a tree or swinging on a bush with a group of boys or girls – and often her group is mixed. That is good to see. I really hope that she continues to have that space and keeps the freedom to define her own relationships, rather than being pushed into someone else’s idea of reality.