(From May 2016, edited)
On the screens of their smartphones, their faces appear small, mostly wide brown eyes. They filter their faces with Snapchat and giggle when they add dog ears and wagging tongues. They smile broadly for selfies. They spend hours making music videos with an app called Musically. Somehow they’ve learned a language of hand motions and face gestures and that come together in a fluid particular dance, slightly different for each song but tailored to a cellphone screen. Their favorite goes like this: Hola como esta, she said konichi wa, she said pardon my French, da da da da da da. Each video that they film zooms around the bus on the other girls’ cellphones and they squeal with delight. There’s nothing sexy about these dances, but it’s them on the screens, ten and eleven years old, open to the world.
We’re on a charter bus on our way back from a field trip to San Antonio, four hours away from home. Their faces against the seat cushions are flushed with sun and exhaustion. Their dark hair curls from sweat, from splashed water, from the spray of the water park. They re-braid each other’s hair and eat their hamburgers contentedly. The evening calm erupts when J. calls N. to tell her he loves her. (M. had already bought E. a stuffed animal Shamu). The phone gets passed around, different girls pretending they’re N. She takes a turn and calls back, pretending to be a pizza delivery man. How did you know it was me? She cries, when the gig is up.
When night falls around the bus, they ask us about boyfriends. Miss L. and I see an opening. Who sees these Musically videos? we ask. The app is also a social network. Just our friends, they chirp, but for the first time in my life I feel like my parents might have felt, like they might still feel – the girls are hiding the truth to protect me. F., tall already, long eyelashes already, a boyfriend already, still says with surprise – but Miss, sometimes random guys message you. It strikes me how much of what they do now, as children, is the creation of image. You might call it dress up, but their mirror is not just the one in their mom’s bedroom. The world that watches their reflection, beamed through cell networks and wireless, doesn’t see their innocence.