In fifth grade I shed my Danskin leisure suits in favor of jeans, chopped off my two big ponytails opting for a small Jewfro and went into full tomboy mode.
My fifth grade teacher also had short hair, albeit much better coiffed than mine. We would watch in amazement as she brushed her hair during group activities. What inspired such awe was the fact that she brushed her hair from the bottom up. Who knew this was even possible? (Well, actually for me it was not possible because the brush would have become lodged in my hair and required removal by a surgeon or at least someone who knew how to operate heavy machinery.)
During her lunch break, our teacher frequented Loehmann’s department store which was just a hop, skip and a jump away across the Horace Harding Expressway overpass. The wind on the overpass was so strong from all the traffic, even during the warmer months, that our teacher needed a good upside down hair brushing upon her return. She was certainly my best dressed teacher in her marked-down Channel pantsuits, but I can’t help but believe that her couture wardrobe was lost on a bunch of fifth graders who were at least five years away from their first pair of Calvin Klein jeans or Christian Dior handbags.
In addition to her “out there” fashion sense, our teacher was into experimental teaching methods. She once had us do an exercise where we selected a partner and had to pretend one of us was a mirror, mimicking the others’ movements. In hindsight, I think this may have been an exercise to help us become better listeners or better interpret visual cues, but at the time, we assumed this was just something for us to do while she brushed her hair. She had us do this in the hallway, much to the enjoyment and heckling of classmates from other rooms on their way to the bathroom. On another occasion, the principal walked down the hallway as we were working on our “assignments.” She shook her head, turned around and we didn’t see her again until June.
Despite her slight bending of the standard fifth grade curriculum, our teacher did let us do many of the other things the fifth grade classes did such as put on a school play. We performed Tom Sawyer and much to my delight I was cast as Tom rather than Becky, a testament to my new tomboy look or perhaps my less than pretty face.
Fifth grade was probably the year I demonstrated the most athletic prowess. I was a huge basketball fan and Gaby and I challenged two fifth grade boys to a game. We actually won which was pretty amazing considering I was the shortest girl in the class, validated each year when we had to line up in the school yard in size order and by my never changing positioning at the far right in every single freaking class picture.
While I loved basketball, punch ball was generally the game of choice during this time. Amy usually went first, followed by Gaby, Laurie or Jackie. Cha-Cha was in charge of getting the bases loaded. She had this fancy way of bouncing the ball, taking a dainty ballerina leap back and then wham. I was honored to often hit fourth, in clean up position and I usually didn’t disappoint my fellow teammates. Later when we moved on to softball, I often held the same position in the lineup, but once I hit the ball, I often flung the bat, rather than setting it down, once right into Amy’s stomach, knocking the wind out of her. After that, kids climbed up the fence when I was at bat, just to get away from me and protect their vital organs and lady parts.
Although I strove for the tomboy look, my body was beginning to change in ways that I could not come to terms with and never seemed capable of discussing with my mother. Another girl in the class had recently acquired a training bra and me and a few of my flat-chested friends teased her mercilessly about it. The joke was on me because I was perhaps the only girl in fifth grade who actually needed a training bra, but held out until mom basically told me my boobs didn’t need any training and I was ready for the real deal.
While I clung to the tomboy look, I started to admit to myself that I liked boys. Laurie and Gaby had boyfriends (that I secretly had crushes on) that were moving at the end of the school year and they arranged a party for them that was part farewell and part hook up. Feeling sorry for me, they arranged for someone for me to hang out with; a boy with hair as red as mine and boobs that were about the same size. I was terrified and I went to school that last day of fifth grade fearful of accepting my fate but equally fearful of looking like I had looked a gift horse in the mouth. The last day of school was marked by an awards ceremony. The red-headed boob man was to receive an award for perfect attendance that day. But to my surprise and utter relief, he was absent! I went to the party stag and mostly hung out with my fellow classmate Stephen (formerly number nine) listening to William DeVaughn’s ‘s 1974 hit “Be Thankful for What You Got” and feeling just that way.