This piece of memoir comes via The Red Dress Club’s challenge this week to begin a narrative with the idea of “crossed arms.”
She crosses her arms and scowls at her younger sister, who is excitedly hopping up and down.
“M.,” I say, “Hold still for a minute, wouldja? I can’t brush your hair if you’re moving around like that.”
“Thorry, mama” she lisps through 4 newly lost teeth. “Ith just that I’m tho excthited!”
“I know you’re excited, but you aren’t going on your field trip with bird’s nest hair, so calm yourself.”
“Do you know that they’ve even thet up a thavenger hunt? Tho we have to find all the different dinothaurs?” She claps her hands in glee, and chants, “field trip, field trip, field trip!”
Miss D. uncrosses her arms and fiddles with the cereal in her bowl, now far past its prime. The scowl remains.
“Why does M. get to go on all the good field trips,” she mutters, pushing the bowl away in protest.
“You just went on a field trip last week,” I remind her.
“But that was just to watch the Senate,” she says with derision. “All they did was sit and talk and say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. That is not a good field trip. Not like the Natural History Museum.”
Awesome Stepkid Ro sits on a stool in the kitchen, eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He looks at me and we exchange wry smiles. The girl has a point.
“You know, you’ll get some fun ones later,” he assures her. “Most of the cool field trips I took were in middle school. We even went to the circus once.”
“I had some boring field trips, too,” I say. “Every year, we had to go to the symphony.” I wrinkle my nose in distaste. “You had to sit still for a whole hour and just listen…but then there were some awesome ones like the Planetarium. That was always my favorite.”
The scowl remains firmly on D.’s face; she knows what we’re up to, and it’s not going to work. Not one bit.
She can’t even look as her little sister, backpack in hand, skips out the door for school, holding Awesome Stepkid Ro’s hand.
Suddenly, she erupts in tears. “Why is M.’s school so fun? I hate school! I hate 4th grade! It’s boring and really, really hard–especially fractions–and we never do anything fun. Last year was fun, and 2nd grade was fun.” She blows into a tissue. ‘Why does school get so serious and boring?”
I sit on the couch next to her, patting her shoulders and back, which she barely tolerates; she clenches her jaw and endures the sympathy.
There’s so much I want to tell her, but I can’t bear it, because the truth hurts. And the truth is, that some point, they suck the joy out of school. They just do. For me, it also happened in 4th grade. My teacher was thick-calved and humorless, and there were no more dioramas or raising crawfish or word searches. Bam! Just like that, the life gets sucked out of learning, out of school.
If she’s lucky, she’ll get a few future teachers who will try to spice things up, and tell little jokes, and make it not so painful. But those teachers are gifts. Rarities.
“Hey, D.,” I say. “We have a few minutes before you have to leave for school. Do you want me to paint your nails? I’ll use that really crazy, glittery kind.”
“Sure,” she says. “Okay.”
I hold her not-so-small-anymore hands in mine and paint sparkle onto nails. Two coats, for good measure.
“Thanks,” she says quietly when I finish. “It was just…I don’t know…I was feeling so prickly inside.”
That she can explain what jealousy feels like in such terms makes me realize how firmly she is sandwiched between child and adult. Nothing works the way you expect it to–it’s like you’ve lost your compass.
She’s got so much to learn and face and grow into.
“It’s okay, baby,” I say, voice a little thick. “Sometimes I feel prickly too.”