So, today I became the mean old lady who wanders around the park, scaring children.

This afternoon, John and I went to the park near our building to play tennis. The park has two very decrepit tennis courts featuring large cracks and crevices, including one caused by the root of a huge oak tree, running through the courts. The lines are faded and barely discernible. There is a third court, but for as long as we’ve been going there, it’s been missing what tennis experts refer to as “the net.” In short, this park is the perfect spot for two crappy tennis players to go on a lovely Saturday afternoon.

One of the courts at this park has a wall about 10 feet behind the baseline where one could practice groundstrokes if one so chose. When we got to the park, a couple (who appeared to be even worse at tennis than we are, if that’s possible,) was playing on that court, so we took the other one. About 20 minutes later, two little girls, maybe eight or nine years old, wandered over to the courts. They briefly considered playing on the court with no net, but then decided instead that they’d rather practice hitting against the wall, and they nonchalantly went over and installed themselves approximately 18 inches behind the poor woman playing on that side of the court and started hitting against the wall.

Let me say, gently, that these little girls were novice tennis players. Their shots kept missing and they had to run onto the court (where the other couple was still gamely trying to continue their match) to retrieve their balls. The couple playing on that court started shooting the girls nasty looks and speaking loudly to each other about “manners” and “being rude.”

The girls either didn’t get it or didn’t listen, and after about 10 minutes, the couple gave up and decided to pack it in. Before they were even off the court, the girls had moved in and started playing on the court. The couple walked away muttering and shaking their heads.

I thought this was unfair. It was unfair that the adult couple had to contend with little girls with no manners on their court, sure, but what seemed even more unfair was that this couple just got all annoyed, made snide comments, and left. The way I saw it, these girls needed to be told, kindly, that they were doing something rude. You can’t expect kids to know all the ins and outs of adult ettiquite without being told, right? So the next time one of our balls went over their way, I decided to talk to them.

Pseudo: Hey ladies. I just wanted to let you know that it can be a little hard to play on the court when someone is hitting against the wall, because it gets crowded. I think it got a little hard for thos other people to continue their match once you started hitting against the wall. It’s not a big deal this time, because those people had been playing for a while and I think they were almost done anyway, but next time, it would be polite to ask if they mind if you hit against the wall before you start.
Little girl: (terrified) o-okay.
Pseudo: Have fun!
Little girl: (turns and runs away.)

The little girls had a conference at the net for several minutes after this little intervention, casting furtive glances in my direction. When, several minutes later, one of their balls rolled over towards us, they conferred for a full 4 minutes before one of them worked up the courage to come over and retrieve it. In short, I scared them to death.

I also embarassed the living crap out of John. He couldn’t believe that I would “discipline someone else’s children.” This is interesting to me. Had he not said anything, it would not have even occured to me that some might object to what I did. These girls did something rude, I assumed they didn’t realize their mistake, and I told them in a very nice way that they should probably do it differently in the future. (Side note: there were no adults accompanying them, so I wasn’t stepping on Mom’s toes or anything here.) This kind of thing happened to me all the time when I was growing up- I still remember some of those times when my friends and I did something we were pretty sure was not okay, but we wanted to test it and, sure enough, an adult would tell us that it wasn’t okay and we would stop. This is how children learn, right? They push a boundary and an adult gently but firmly reminds them just where the boundary is? Or has teaching just ruined me forever by making me think that I can extend the concept of “teachable moments” to the children of strangers?

I stand by my decision to intervene, but it had a totally unexpected consequence: it kind of sucks to be the scary old lady. As a teacher, you’re expected to give little lessons like this, but you have repeated contact with the kid, and you can make it up to them by showing a little respect and teaching lessons that don’t suck. These girls from the park, though, will probably turn and run in the opposite direction the next time they see me coming. Scary old lady. Sheesh. Next thing you know, I’ll own half a dozen cats. And wear a lot of purple.

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