Lola got her first chain letter (email) yesterday.
They were so much more work when I was her age. I remember getting the intricately folded sheet of notebook paper slipped into my palm or underneath my textbook on my desk during class, excusing myself to the restroom to open it up, and feeling my heart sink.
I distinctly recall sitting in the bathroom stall contemplating my next steps. Once entrusted with the note, smeary with pencil lead and softened in the creases, I now had to choose 10 or 15 others to pass the message on to…OR ELSE.
Sometimes I was promised magical outcomes upon successfully forwarding the note – the boy I had a crush on would walk me home from school or my most fervent wish would come true – but more often there were dire threats should I fail to identify enough friends to pass it to.
The difficulty was embedded in the intricate social structure that existed for a girl in the fourth or fifth grade. There were a multitude of ‘best friends,’ many of whom the note had already passed through. Choosing the wrong girls meant that I would either hurt someone’s feelings or look like an unsophisticated fool. Not passing it along was not an option. Boys didn’t count, even if they were my friends, because they would never keep the chain going. You had to pick people that would perpetuate the note, and you couldn’t give it to anyone who wasn’t cool or skip over girls in the established hierarchy. I was somewhere near the middle of the pack, which made it hard because I was never the one to start the chain.
Inevitably, on the evening that I received the note, I would settle down on my Hollie Hobby bedspread with ten fresh sheets of notebook paper to hand-copy the message. By the time I was done, the callous on my middle finger would be throbbing and red, complete with pencil-imprint in the center, and my heart would beat along in desperation that I had chosen the “right ten.” Finding a clandestine way to pass the notes at school the next day posed nowhere near the danger that not passing it did. I didn’t want to die in my sleep, for goodness’ sake!
For all of that, though, I never faced the fear that Lola experienced when she opened the email from a trusted friend last night before bed. Lola’s unique perspective on the world is often quite literal. She has difficulty sussing out nuances when it comes to threats or promises and discerning whether or not they are real, and while I am fairly certain that she didn’t truly believe some horrible fate would befall her before morning if she didn’t quickly choose five friends to forward the email to, she definitely felt some sense of foreboding. It made for a very difficult bedtime routine. Following a candid discussion of what chain mail is (complete with the admonition that it’s more of a scam to get people to pass on viruses or phish their email inbox than anything social like it was in my childhood), we went through two rounds of cheesecloth and a meditation before she would even consider laying down. It was another hour and a lot of cuddling before she was able to get out of her own head enough to feel safe and fall asleep. This morning, we’re crafting an email to her friends to ask them to please not pass those emails on to her and I am struck by how much more work it was for my generation to hand-write each and every note we were passing on. We had to put in a lot more sweat for our terror!