A month ago, I starting writing what I imagined to be a simple, sweet piece about when I was in sixth grade. But I’m forty six years removed from sixth grade, which became apparent as I wrote a few paragraphs, erased, and tried again. The problem, if problem is the right word, is that writing about when I was eleven years old when I’m now well into my fifty-somethings is tricky because what’s coming out is an interpretation of the seconds or perhaps few minutes of the moments I’m writing about. Is what I’m writing a true representation or just what I grew up telling myself happened?
I ask this both to challenge me as a writer who often writes about the past and readers who read writers who write about the past to consider the slipperiness of truth. Our long-term memories are usually subjective, some are even biased by a subconscious wish that things had been different, and no two people remember a shared experience the same way. I’m always interested, though, in why we remember what we remember, and how, years later, our interpretation of events – what we told ourselves is true – has impacted our lives.
Anyway, that’s way heavier than this piece actually is. You won’t need an advanced degree in psychology to get through it, I promise. (But I can’t promise you won’t need a cup of coffee!)
The One About Sixth Grade
My daughter shared a video recently of my eleven-year-old grandson playing Legos with his two younger sisters. They are sitting on the floor in the girls’ bedroom, building something and singing a song. Luca’s most reliable companion, his lime green blankie, worn thin over the years, is draped over his shoulder. Luca doesn’t bring his blanket with him everywhere, but in the house, it’s always there whenever he needs its friendly, nonjudging presence.
Watching Luca singing and building, and blissfully subconscious of his blanket, I thought about when I was eleven and in sixth grade. I had a blankie, too. Like his, it was practically see-through, more of a rag, really, but it was still soft in a few places and it helped me fall asleep every night.
In sixth grade, I didn’t yet hate my hair. Baiting a fish hook was still fine to do, and a bra wouldn’t be necessary for another year. I played tetherball and skipped rope, and I didn’t care that I sweat and probably stunk. We all did. Our classroom was thick with pre-hormonal kid stink after recess.
Yet, for all its naivete, sixth grade was when my childhood starting bumping into adulthood with increasing regularity. My underdeveloped understanding of the world, informed mostly by my Lutheran upbringing, was often challenged by more adult-like issues such as “bad” words, otherwise kind people being mean, and sex.
One of my more enlightened teachers, especially regarding sexuality, was music, even though at eleven the meaning of a lot of lyrics eluded me. I bought Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and while the lyrics were printed on the inside cover, “All the Young Girls Love Alice” flew over my head. Many songs didn’t, though. When I heard “Lorelei” by Styx for the first time, I thought, People can live together without being married? and quickly decided it wasn’t a question I would ask my parents. I also knew enough about sex to turn down the radio when “Chevy Van” or “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came on. That was not a conversation I wanted to have with Mom and Dad.
Growing up in mostly protestant white bread rural Minnesota, I assumed everyone believed the same thing I did. You didn’t say “Geez” because that was short for Jesus, and “damn” was the worst four-letter word I knew. Playing “soccer” one day during recess (in 1975, our understanding of soccer was that it was like football with a kick ball), I got in my best friend’s way as she attempted to kick a goal. “Damn you, Lynn!” she yelled. I stood there, stunned. According to everything Lutheran, she was damning me to hell.
“Damn” was not a word I heard in my house, and I for sure wasn’t supposed to say it because, well, my parents said the Bible said I couldn’t. So why could my friend? Where did she hear it? Was it because her father went to the bar sometimes or that her family didn’t go to church every Sunday? Religious “rules,” as I understood them, started to feel a little unfair and not all together right. My friend hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt for saying “damn,” and in fact, her life seemed perfectly normal, if not a little more fun than mine.
I had a boyfriend named Ricky and we held hands on the bus during our sixth-grade field trip, which felt all kinds of good in all the wrong ways my mother (and the Bible) warned me about. My first kiss, though, was not with Ricky, but a boy named Todd from Anchorage who was in town visiting his grandparents. It was not at all like a Fonzie kiss, but it wasn’t awful either.
Todd’s grandmother asked me if I’d show him around town and include him in activities while he was there. I doubt she had spin the bottle in mind, but anyway, a bunch of us were playing in a little clearing of brush behind our house. When it was my turn, I hoped the bottle would land on one of the cute boys, but instead it landed on Todd. I didn’t think of Todd as cute, although maybe he was. To me, he was just someone I watched Happy Days reruns with in his grandparent’s living room. Now I had to kiss him.
I insisted we go to the garage so no one could watch. He agreed. We stepped into the dark tin building and looked at each other in awkward silence. The pressure was on him to make the first move because I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned in, I closed my eyes, and it was over in two seconds, just enough time for me to process his lips, which I could tell he’d licked right before they landed on mine .
That’s all I remember except that we didn’t kiss again and we never talked about it.
Sixth grade was, for many of us, a pivotal time when vulnerability was something we started to feel, but couldn’t yet name. There were those who offered and those who took that bite of fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden, and those of us who took notes from the sidelines. We shed our innocence, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Either way, we discovered that the world was much bigger than we thought. I remember one boy in particular who was not academically gifted, but in music class, he would sing his heart out, every note off key. Oblivious to pitch, he sang for the pure joy of singing, whether it was “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Streets of Laredo.” Did he have a blankie? I hope so, because the next year, no longer within the relative safety of elementary school, he was pretty much forgotten and remained on the fringe throughout high school. I asked my cousin recently where that boy was these days and he said the last he heard he was dealing drugs in Minneapolis.
Watching Luca again with his green friend wrapped over his shoulder, I thought about my old blankie. My mom threw it away one day while I was at school thinking I didn’t need it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night, I felt so alone. But I figured it out, like we all do to some degree, how to live without the things we grew up telling ourselves we needed, when the world was still small and one-dimensional.