When I was in fourth grade, I was starting a new school. My teacher was built much as I am now: she was stocky, warm, and matronly, although of less than prepossessing height. I remember feeling safe in that classroom, even though I was new.
This was the year when I met my new best friend. I felt guilty about this, since my old best friend, from my old school, was no longer receiving my undivided attention, nor was I, hers.
As we all do, in times of change, I wanted my old life to continue. But block upon block of concrete sidewalk lay between my new and my old home. And my parents were less than eager to ferry me back and forth. Unlike how I might have been with my own children, decades later, in more child-centric days.
This was the first year I experienced any Valentine’s Day awkwardness. I had always loved taking a dull shoe box and dressing it up with paper and glue and ribbons and doilies. Stickers were not a thing yet, much less character-themed valentines. We cut little heart cards out of construction paper. The perennial rule was, however, already in effect. You had to give a Valentine to everyone in class.
My new best friend didn’t care for that rule, especially in her present circumstances. She was the unfortunate one at school who blossomed early, and thus attracted attention without ever meaning to. One in particular was smitten, and therefore powerfully resented by her. His dogged interest in her, following her around and not leaving her alone, made her despise him all the more.
And so she did what, I suspect, many a creative soul has done to chase off the spirit of unrequited love. Inside her little construction-paper heart she wrote “I hate you!” And she stuck it in the box of that unfortunate lad.
When I found out about it—and I did straight away, for we were best friends—my moral conscience could not allow such a heartless (so to speak) transgression to go unaddressed. I insisted that she apologize to him.
She was having none of it. She felt perfectly justified in delivering the cold, hard truth.
“You apologize to him,” she said.
Well, someone had to. I was brought up believing, that if you have nothing good to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. An attack like this, clothed in the apparel of love, or at least, friendship, or at the very, very least, tolerance, had to sting much worse, than an honest confrontation, face to face. Not that I was any good at those either.
But I plucked up the courage and went to the boy, who I assumed was crushed. After all, a girl who was of the caliber of my best friend had just rejected him. I told him she didn’t mean it. I told him, he didn’t deserve this. I said he should ignore what she said. Then I went back to my seat. I felt very good about having done the right thing, and having repaired this gaping wound in his heart.
Of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished. From that day forward, I was the one who was followed and doggedly pursued.
This all goes to show that in fourth grade, I had very few strategies in my quiver, with which to deal with life (or dare I say Cupid?) The tiny pangs of friendships increasing or decreasing in strength or even fading to nothingness, were enough to consume my attention between the bells.
In fourth grade, my mother still braided my long, unruly hair, though her wiser, smoking, divorcée friend counseled against it. In fourth grade I walked a mile to school, as we all did, without any guards keeping watch for our safety. School supplies were free, and supplied (imagine!) by the school. The books in the library were free to borrow and we were allowed to choose whichever ones we wanted.
This memo did not get through to my sixth grade teacher, apparently. She advised all the girls to avoid Judy Blume’s “Are You there God, It’s Me Margaret” which among other things has very frank talk about periods, a bit of info that I, for one, could probably have used. But even in sixth grade, my naiveté was pretty thorough. I thought, if a teacher didn’t like it, I had better avoid it.
Imagine, if I had been told the governor didn’t like it! That would have been like telling me God forbade such things.
I also recall, to my eternal shame, agreeing to “go with” (our word for go steady, or date exclusively) at least five boys in my sixth grade class, because I had simply no idea what they meant by “to go with someone.” Not knowing, or naiveté, was kind of a theme at that age.
In fourth grade, I had just moved to a house next to the public library. The library was an old building of brick and concrete from the nineteen-twenties or so, probably paid for by some Carnegie or another. I loved the children’s section, which was in the basement. It was wooden and full of books to read in the long hours, and at that age, all hours seemed long. I would read sprawling, belly down, on my twin bed, or perched on top of the AC unit, among the lilies of the valley that grew in our narrow side yard, while lilacs burst from the towering hedge, and spilled their scent all over.
In fourth grade, I still played “Alligator” with my sister in the front yard of our house in the Great White North, with imaginary alligators nipping at our ankles as we jumped over the broad walk leading to my front door. Little did I know that Life would lead me to a place where alligators were real, and where neither summer nor winter was as white, as the place I came from.
For now, though, in fourth grade, I knew I was safe.
That is not to say that I was never hurt in my idyllic world. I was the victim of many a cruel comment, many a pummeling snowball, and many an empty mailbox, where there should have been an invitation. I was constantly reminded by the presence of sixth graders at our school, kids who looked so different, somehow, that the terrifying specter of adolescence was only a few short years away. Assuming, of course—as we all did—that we would survive so long.
No one questioned that assumption. We would survive. We would be safe. Because what could be safer, than a school full of kids in a white, middle-class neighborhood in the nineteen-seventies?
The scariest situation during my grade school years, the only one that made me feel that our safe space had been violated, was when a drug pusher was discovered on the playground. “What gall it would take, to dare to do that!” we thought. The patrols were certainly be much more vigilant after that, and would have waved their flags menacingly in the face of the intruder, had they discovered one. That would serve them right! But even after this invasion, did we worry about predators?
That’s like asking, if we worried about being corrupted by the books in our school library. Or about guns.
It was unthinkable. No doubt these things did happen, but out of sight, unbeknownst to most of us. It was our conviction to our bones, that such things couldn’t happen here. It was not until junior high that I actually shared a class with a person of another race. It was not until going to art camp at an inner city school that I realized that non-white faces were more common there, than at my school. It wasn’t till then that I heard rumors of busing, of violence. It occurred to me at last, that not all interactions between students and students, or students and their teachers, were harmonious. Some such interactions might even go beyond what I viewed to be the very edge of civil behavior: when two parties were mutually passive-aggressive.
Even then, in fourth grade, I was toying with rhyme, wanting to write a script, enjoying silly assignments like “Find all the idioms you can, having to do with animals.” I had begun writing a long rambling story about a squirrel. I began to read ferociously, but without harm to others, except to the extent that I ignored them. I avoided whatever conflict I could, a strategy which held me in good stead, at least until I entered Law School, at which point it proved less useful.
Like any good Midwesterner, my fourth-grade me never dreamed, that conflicts could possibly arise, which would not lend themselves to being solved by avoidance.
Is that not the very definition of war—a conflict that cannot be solved by avoidance? Something that cannot be sidestepped, despite the most compassionate attitudes, despite ones best efforts, despite ones most desperate attempts, to solve the unsolvable.
One cannot sidestep love.
One cannot sidestep a bullet, either.
It crushes me to think how fortunate I am, to be a person of my race and age. To have had a childhood of such sheltered innocence, of such relative privilege and protection from harm, of such safety, whether real or an illusion.
Today’s children have no such luck. Fourth graders today must do drills for active shooter attacks. They must plan out any interactions they have with police. They must somehow accept that they may be collateral damage in a war with an enemy, that our nation fails again and again, to defend itself against. War is raging on our doorsteps, in the hallways of our schools. And its victims are the nation’s children. Yet we do little or nothing.
Avoidance has always been one of my favorite strategies for dealing with conflict. I like it. I really do. But there are times when avoiding a problem just won’t do. We cannot hide in a closet reading a book while our children are being slaughtered.
Even in fourth grade, I could summon up the courage, to try to apologize for my friend who did not want to apologize. That took such courage and seemed like such a huge deal to me. But I’m sure you and I both realize, that it is nothing, compared to the courage of today’s fourth-graders. Nothing, compared to the courage that the fourth graders of Uvalde, Texas, those who remain, have had to summon up in the past year.
May we all somehow find the courage to speak our outrage, no matter how unpleasant the blow back may be. And may we all be willing to walk together on a path of action, to once and for all preserve the sacred naiveté and innocence of fourth graders yet to come.
Copyright 2023 Andrea LeDew