Natalie started sixth grade this year. That feels weird. Sixth grade is one of the first grades that I can remember with any narrative certainty. Oh, I have memories before that, but they’re more like snapshots, or maybe little repeating GIF’s. Sixth grade though, that’s where the narrative arc that continued for some time began. Or should I say narrative arcs. I could start any of a number of painful young adult novels with events that occurred in and around sixth grade.
It was the year of Mrs. Neumiller at St. Mary’s K-8 parochial school. My class had a reputation for being “lively:” fun for the teachers that still had the energy, hopelessly exhausting for those that didn’t. Mrs. Neumiller fell into the latter camp, and if memory serves, she quickly retired after our sixth grade year.
She wore a collection of chunky turquoise rings that hung loose on her fingers as she wrote on the board, held in place only by knuckles grown arthritic with age. She wore a pen on a string around her neck that dangled forward as she distributed communion wine at weekly mass. And she wore a look of harried concern most of the time.
Here’s a sampling of some of my story arcs that got their roots in sixth grade . . .
…Once, while demonstrating how one can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on oneself using the back of a chair, Mrs. Neumiller lost her footing, slipped, landed across the back of the chair and had the wind knocked out of her. It probably hurt a lot. I’m pretty sure that most of us either stared or laughed. Theme: kids are mean, and it takes awhile to have the human decency knocked into them.
…In sixth grade I started trying to look like other people. Prior to this, I thought that looking unique was most important. I sewed some clothes, made some interesting choices at the store for others. I wore a sweater with sheep on it. I had my mom put my damp hair in braids so that it would be wavy in the morning. Then someone called me Tina Turner, and that was the end of that. Conformity it was. I tried to figure out how to make my bangs big. I had a curling iron, but not any of the correct products or a mentor to teach me. My mother had styled her hair by letting it air dry short for as long as I can remember. My bangs never achieved the lofty heights of my classmates who had older sisters and ready access to mousse. Theme: even a desire to conform isn’t necessarily enough.
…I got my period in sixth grade. Shortly thereafter I was at a pool party at a classmate’s house and, newly menstruating girls being what they are, unpredictably had it arrive. I had to use feminine hygiene products from her mom’s cupboard. It was not OK. Theme: puberty sucks and I should really have been keeping track of things on a calendar.
…A classmate’s father died that year after a brief battle with brain cancer. I remember her standing up to offer an intention during morning prayers one day. She used the word “chemo” in such a familiar way that it still gives me chills. It was the first funeral that I ever attended. It rained. I started to realize that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan. Theme: life doesn’t come with any money back guarantees. This is hard to learn.
…That year, we participated in a goal-planning activity. It came with a green, shiny booklet that I’m sure was sponsored by a bank or something. It was the first time I had to answer the question “where do you want to be in 10 years?” (I still hate that question). The program also attempted to teach us basic financial skills and boiled money down to understandable facts. I began to get the idea that maybe finances were a topic that could be discussed rationally and and without all sorts of emotion hanging onto them. Theme: there are ways to approach life other than your parents’ way; this can feel like betrayal at first.
…I longed to be noticed by boys, but I had absolutely no idea how best to go about it. Apparently, showing off in class, dressing like a middle aged woman, and laughing painfully loudly was not the correct way. Theme: they’re really pretty easy to figure out once you stop trying so hard.
I wonder what narrative arcs Natalie will start this year?
I hope that her memories of me are of the patient moments. I hope that she can avoid some of the embarrassments and that those that are inevitable are quickly blurred by memory.