I have vivid memories of fourth grade. Not long drawn out memories, but vignettes that have retained clarity over thirty-four years. First was sitting down in the front row of class and realizing that I was out of rows. My inching forward year after year had led me to a front row seat and a still blurry chalkboard. I could see nothing. Finally admitting my handicap to my perfect-vision parents meant starting the year in the front of the room with my chubby face famed by brand-new large plastic framed glasses.
I don’t remember when in the year the spitballs began. Mrs. Busick – a teacher name worthy of a Stephen King novel if there ever was one – would turn to the board and about the time the chalk dust scent reached me I’d hear the fwwt as tiny wads of spitty paper balls were blown through the barrels of Bic pens at the ceiling above my head. As Mrs. Busick scratched her lessons some of the spitwads would miss their mark and go careening around the room. Others wouldn’t be sticky enough and rain from the ceiling-tiles marked with holes like giant incomprehensible braille messages. However, when the projectiles hit their mark the bulbous white insect larvae would dangle above my head waiting to drop and infest my hair and clothing with their sticky bodies. Throughout the day I could hear them plop down around me, and each morning my desk and chair were littered with the dried husks that fell overnight.
My best friend’s younger brother was in my class, and I remember his guilty confession one night at her house, “I’m sorry about the spitwads, but everyone else is doing it, so…you know.” I did know. He felt bad doing it, but not so bad that he wanted to risk being the next target or not join in on the fun.
At some point the year got better. Maybe Mrs. Busick finally put an end to the shenanigans, or maybe the boys moved onto someone or something else. While the spitballs are one of my sharpest memories of fourth grade they weren’t life altering. I haven’t spent hours at the therapist talking about those mean kids. In fact, it’s only been the past few years that I’ve given the episode more than a casual thought, normally brought on by ceiling tiles in antiquated bureaucratic buildings.
The memory is important now, because tomorrow my daughter starts fourth grade. I know we are different people. She has perfect 20/15 vision – I never say “no” when our pediatrician asks if we’d like her vision tested even though she’s always had perfect sight. (This 20/400 vision mom has the opposite bias of her own parents.) I also know my daughter’s school would never allow systematic bullying of one girl… well… not for long anyway. The memory matters because this is the year I expect kids to get mean. I expect them to flex their intimidation muscles and try inflicting some pain. This is the end of the nice years and the beginning of real life, and I want to prepare her but not scare her. How do I give her the resiliency my parents gave me, so that if she is the target she will be bothered, but not damaged? What if she decides to be on the other end of those hollow pen barrels? How do I teach her crappy she’ll make other people feel before she inflicts that pain?
Ah parenting. What a journey this little person has brought me on, and how unexpectedly she’s forced me to relive my own past. Fourth grade here we come.