Back to School, or Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind
My sister, a teacher, went back to school this week. She’s teaching fifth grade this year.
Watching her prepare over the past month, I couldn’t help but think about my own first day of fifth grade, in September of 1978. It was particularly memorable because it was also my first day at a new school after my family moved back to the town where my father had grown up.
The school was a small one, kindergarten through 12th grade in one building. Most of the kids had been together from their very first day in a classroom. All of them knew one another. Many of them were related.
Despite the fact that my father’s family had lived in the town for three generations and the school was populated with my cousins, I was an outsider. This was made abundantly clear to me within minutes of my getting on the bus, when none of the other kids would allow me to sit with them.
It continued through that first day, during which I was informed that the t-shirt I had chosen to wear was “faggy” and that I carried my books “like a girl,” and culminated with a run-in with the class bully on the playground where I was informed that I should expect to have my ass kicked on a regular basis.
That more or less set the tone for the next seven years.
I dreaded going to school, as every day was an exercise in humiliation and misery. At the same time, every summer as the first day of the new year neared, I got excited. I liked school. It was the other kids I couldn’t stand. But maybe, I thought, things would be different this time, as if during the three months they hadn’t seen me my classmates would have forgotten how much they hated me.
This never happened, of course. In a closed ecosystem like our school was, once you’re assigned a role, you’re stuck with it for the duration. And so just as there was the class brain, the class slut, the class clown, I became the class fag. If it had come with a crown, it might not have been so bad, but there wasn’t even a sash.
Unsurprisingly, I haven’t kept in touch with many people from that time in my life. But I do have a couple of friends from that period, and some of them have remained connected to our classmates on social media. This has afforded me the occasional glimpse of how their lives turned out, and this week that has meant seeing photos and posts about their kids and grandkids heading back to school and, in some instances, college.
The schoolyard bully I mentioned earlier died about ten years after we graduated, of a heart attack. At the time, he was divorced from another of our classmates, with whom he had produced a son. I’ve watched the boy grow up through his mother’s Facebook posts.
He looks very much like his father, but appears (as much as one can tell from what people choose to put on social media) to be his emotional opposite, a kind and gentle person. It’s strange to see his father’s face on him and to think about the things his father said and did to me, much as it must be strange for his mother, who experienced the man’s dark side in much more brutal ways during their marriage.
I’m writing a novel at the moment that is set in the world of a fifth-grade classroom, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about that time of my life. Ten-year-old me wanted to be a writer, and he got to be one. Other aspects of my life have turned out much differently than I dreamed of back then. I suspect they have for my classmates as well, as the dreams of fifth graders are generally unrestricted by the realities that hit a few years later.
While many of these back to school and off to college moments remind me of a life that was, others are reminders of the life that wasn’t. I don’t have children, and I don’t regret this. Still, when my best friend from the time I was five posts photos of her daughter starting her first day of third grade, I wonder what it would be like, and if I’ve missed out in some way.
I’m supposed to go speak to my sister’s class later this year about being a writer. To them I will seem impossibly old, an age they can’t imagine ever being. To me they will seem impossibly young, and I’ll wonder how 40 years could have passed so quickly.
I’ll ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and listen as they tell me their hopes and dreams. Maybe one or two will stand out as the weird kids, the ones who dread coming to school because it reminds them that they don’t fit in, that they make the others uncomfortable.
“Don’t worry,” I’ll tell those kids. “Fifth grade isn’t forever. It just feels like it.” ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. More Michael Thomas Ford