I could tell they were fifth graders because the middle schools have now absorbed the sixth grade, and the biggest fish in the elementary pond are now in the fifth grade. They're the oldest. They've been at this school the longest, and the year's almost over, they're almost out of this stupid place. Next year they will be the little sixth-graders, heads down and scanning the waters for the scent of blood and danger. Right now though, they are Kings with the whole country of summer to rule.
It's funny how we don't really get to see the whole cycle of things till we've traveled much of it's three hundred and sixty degrees and then turn around and look back.
I wish I could talk to my own fifth-grade self, and believe what I would say. Not like talking to someone as old as I am now (Like my Big Daddy was, he talked all the time, but knew absolutely nothing at all) but to listen and to know that it was my own grown-up self who was talking. Of all people I understand exactly the way it is at that age because I am the same person. After I got over the initial horror that I look so very much like the mother who was the root of all evil at that time I like to think I would have gotten a leg-up on the future by knowing what I know now.
Like that time I wrote Eddie Warner a note telling him how much I liked him, but made sure to use paper that didn't match what I had in my school notebook. Even then deniability and a good cover-story came naturally to me. I wrote him a long letter, but changed the way I wrote some of my own script, and left it in front of his door. I really liked Eddie Warner. He was one of the boys I saw on the street yesterday, the ones who know they are at the top of the food-chain. Eddie Warner was completely and totally out of my league.
He cornered me at school after-hours one day, and asked me if I had written that note. Oh, the certainty and forced non-chalance of my denial. He asked to see the paper in my notebook (three-hole) and it did throw him off, because the note had been written on five-hole paper. He was a newspaper boy and happened to have a bag of rubber bands with him. He said "I am going to shoot every one of these rubber bands at you until you admit that it was you who wrote that." He did. He shot them until I cried, all the while denying that someone like me would write a note to someone like him saying how much I liked him. To this day if you stretch a rubber band in my direction I will either freeze with terror or bolt from the room. I finally escaped, ran home to cry, and leave him to pick up every one of those rubber missiles of shame.
Here's what I would tell fifth-grade me: "He liked you too. He liked you or he wouldn't have invested so much effort and so many rubber bands in his attempt to extract the truth from you." I saw it as proof that you should never, ever tell someone you like them, because it will only end in humiliation and tears.
Then there was Jerry Farr, whose desk I sat in when we moved rooms for math. We were not supposed to open the desk of the student who normally sat there, but I know we all had at least a peek at what was inside. Along with his pencils and chewed eraser I saw a note one day. It said "Will you go steady with me?" and was wrapped around the kind of inexpensive little ring that fifth-grade boys have access to. I put it on and wrote back "Yes." I liked him too, he was short but very cute. I didn't have any friends who were girls to ask me, but I saw the questioning looks. They knew I was wearing a boy's ring and that someone had asked me to go steady.
For days, weeks, maybe all the years of fifth grade I could no longer meet his eyes or speak to him at recess. I started hanging out with his sister Stacy (who no one liked, but it did get me into his actual house) and when we would bump into each other there he'd say "Hey." and I would mumble something stupid and make a dash for the bathroom until I was sure he was gone. At some point there was a note in the pencil tray that said "Can I have my ring back? You are no fun to go steady with." I removed it in shame and relief, I knew he had been too good for me the whole time and we'd be better off this way.
Again, if Old Lady Me could talk to Fat and Completely Unattractive Young Me I would say "He liked you too. He would have talked to you at recess and maybe held your hand. It wasn't a trick so he could make everyone laugh at you for thinking that a boy like him would ever like a girl like you."
I wish I could have talked to High School Me, and let me in on the secret that the really hot, long-haired stoner guys who had cars and cut class were already at the top of their game, they would never rise above where they were at that moment. I wish I could have said "Read that book proudly, and look at boys you see reading, they're going to be smarter than those other boys and have better jobs." I wish I could have shaken myself and said "Look at me! Listen very carefully, this is going to matter! Boys who want to have sex with you don't necessarily like you!"
If I could have talked to Young Mother Me I would have had the chance to say "Go ahead and watch them play in the dirt. Mud washes off. Look at their awkward, skinny limbs of perfection and burn that picture indelibly into your brain! They are going to be up and gone so fast you won't even know what happened."
Today Me knows all of these things. Fifth-Grade Me only knew that even if you locked me in a room I could go into the closet and make an entirely separate world of my own choosing. That love equals humiliation and pain. That I would never be really good at anything, and that if anyone really knew who I was inside they would most certainly reject me. That to use the big, luscious gourmet words I found in books would divide me from my peers and add yet more layers to my isolation. I so wish I could speak to that Me now.
I wish I could at least leave one letter, wedged into a secret space where I kept all my very bad poetry and said:
"Don't worry, hold on, no matter what you will never be your mother. Trust me, I know this because I am you, and you are not."