Sixth grade is a very full year. Social engagements, scare tactics designed to prepare the kids for the rigors of middle school, and the hormones twisting and tugging at their moods can be overwhelming.
I watch my daughter, who is sometimes quite overwhelmed, and wonder which parts of this will stick. What will end up being the life lessons? Which parts of her personality are fixed, and which will continue to morph? When she thinks back to this year, what will she even remember?
I took a moment to think back to my own sixth grade year, to ask myself those same questions. The things that stuck with me all these years are ...odd. Unpredictable.
Little Emily Brown, with the front and sides of her hair pulled up into side ponytails at her temples and the rest of her hair loose down her back, was an awkward girl. Overly silly, lacking self-confidence.
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A boy with dark hair and freckles brazenly wore a necklace that declared, “Oh, S%*t.” The class clown, he stirred up trouble, getting a rise out of the class.
His antics earned his name a place on the inside of my tennis shoe sole, written in erasable pen. My first crush, though I knew better than to commit with permanent ink.
Those doodled-upon shoes were Nike — the hot brand at the time. Yet, even the most sought-after shoes gave me no confidence. You see, my swoosh was burgundy, many shades darker than the beautiful pastel swooshes the other girls wore.
The difference? Theirs had been purchased at full price, whereas my grandmother had found mine on sale.
Also in style were penny loafers, with actual pennies stuffed in a fold of leather, peeking through a little opening, designed for that purpose. I did not have penny loafers, but wore a pair of my mom’s penniless loafers that she let me borrow.
One day, during bathroom break, I was minding my own business in the last stall of the bathroom. One of the popular girl’s voices trumpeted, “Emily Brown has on the ugliest shoes in the world.”
I sobbed so hard I couldn’t get the words out to tell the teacher why I was upset. When the words finally came, I tattled shamelessly.
“It was only a joke,” she pleaded to the teacher. Years later, I decided that girl was actually very nice. Anyone can make a bad joke — especially in sixth grade.
Were my grades good? I don’t know, but I can tell you whose grades were not good. We were asked to pick out an assignment we were proud of and hang it on the bulletin board on the side of the coat closet.
I have no idea what assignment I displayed. I do, however, remember that one sweet and quiet girl chose a cursive handwriting assignment on which she received a “M.” (The equivalent of a C.) I studied her assignment, noting that I quite liked her handwriting style.
It was even and compact, with neat little curves at the bottoms of her capital T’s. She’d been counted down for not slanting the letters enough. I decided then and there that handwriting grades were poppycock, and quit trying to perfect my own. I complimented her on her “M” assignment.
My aunt slathered me in bright stage makeup the night I played a scientist named John in the school play. I stood next to the mesmerizing dry ice, which I’d been told not to touch, or my hand would completely freeze and most likely fall off. I really wanted to touch it.
Some of that is still me, and some of it is not.
I’m still a dork with the “wrong” clothes, although I pick them out myself, now. I’m still drawn to someone who’s struggling — and occasionally, to unorthodox defiance. I still fight the urge to touch dry ice. But if you insult my shoes, I’ll probably laugh.
It’s amazing to watch my kids growing up, finding themselves, and learning to accept who they are — quirks and all. Maybe someday they’ll look back and try to define themselves through sixth-grade memories.
Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org