Fourth grade was a year of change and an end of innocence. Watergate was in full swing, the US was in a recession, and Cher was appearing regularly on television half naked. I began my own experimentation and rebellion or sorts during this time period as well.
In fourth grade we had a spelling and math test every week on Friday. I breezed through math in third grade because the main thing we learned that year was multiplication which is all memorization…something I can actually do (well, until cell phones with auto dial were invented and my ability to memorize anything went out the window). But fourth grade math was division, which requires some degree of logical thinking, something I have none of.
Each week we were handed a piece of pale yellow paper and the teacher dictated the math questions we were to answer. She didn’t use mimeograph paper for math tests and while most kids continued to sniff the pale yellow paper hoping for a quick buzz, all we ever got was the faint smell of the storage closet where the paper was kept.
Since we were required to answer several math problems, the teacher instructed us on how to fold the paper to achieve the correct number of boxes to serve as a work space for each problem. If there were eight math problems I could handle the folding ritual, but on the weeks when there were 16 problems to solve, my paper often looked like a failed attempt at origami or a handmade accordion fan.
Once the paper was folded and the problems were dictated, I employed a new skill I had learned that year…cheating. My friend Gaby was always up for a dare, plus she was a much better math student than me, so who was I to argue? We blatantly surveyed each other’s papers, yet we were never caught. It seemed like an ingenious plan at the time, however, I left fourth grade lacking some basic math skills that were later uncovered by my sixth grade teacher who couldn’t stand to look at me. Note to friends: This is why you should never ask me to divide the check after a gathering with multiple people. Some people will end up kicking in $2 while you will be asked to pay $50.
Fourth grade was without a doubt the year I made the biggest fashion statement of my life. In fourth grade, I stopped wearing dresses to school and started wearing pants. In 1973, school-appropriate pants for girls were Danskins. The tween Danskin ensembles of the day were the equivalent of men’s polyester leisure suits for ten-year-old girls. My favorite outfit was a pair of green Danskin pants with an orange Danskin turtleneck. I wore a multi-colored, multi-patterned knit vest over this and put the finishing touches on the look by wearing two big ponytails tied together with orange yarn (mom’s idea). One week I wore this get-up on a Friday when we had our math and spelling test and I earned grades of 100 percent on both. I became convinced that the outfit had something to do with this and secretly planned to wear this each week on Friday in hopes of repeating the 100 percent test scores. It must have been pretty obvious, because the teacher actually sent a note home to my mother asking why I wore the same thing every Friday. I’m not sure if the teacher had picked up on my leanings towards obsessive compulsive disorder or she was just trying to throw a hint mom’s way that she should buy me some more clothes, but all I know is that since I outgrew that outfit in the fourth grade, the 100’s on my math tests have been few and far between.
In fourth grade we finally got to stop making the obligatory Mother’s Day gifts of the 70’s such as a pencil holder made out of an old soup can, glue, and dried macaroni and a jewelry case made out of an empty cigar box that no matter how much cologne you sprayed in it still smelled like a cigar box (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). Our fourth grade teacher came up with the idea to create a cookbook for the moms for Mother’s Day. Each kid had to request a favorite recipe from their mom, but keep the project a secret. The teacher copied all the recipes (wait a minute; no…she mimeographed them!) and each kid created a special cover for the book out of of some strange, exceptionally durable material that felt like wallpaper, (perhaps left over from the teacher’s home renovation project).
One of my favorite recipes from that book was from Harlan’s mom. The recipe was for orange Jello. “This is a recipe?” you might ask. But wait; in his mother’s recipe you add orange juice instead of water! Fancy, huh? I still remember the instructions: Empty box of jello into a bowl, add one cup orange juice, stir, refrigerate, serve. So simple and yet so 70’s. My mom contributed a recipe called Chicken Tarragon Champignons. I have no idea how to pronounce this, but I do remember the recipe called for so much butter it should have been served with a side of Lipitor. My mother still has this cookbook and it is not unusual for her to call me and tell me things like, “I made Patti’s mother’s ham steak with pineapple recipe yesterday for dinner.” Unfortunately, I think she has yet to try the orange Jello recipe.
After the cookbooks were delivered, the teacher arranged a day where each mom could cook the dish supplied in the cookbook and we could have a feast in the school cafeteria. It was a festive occasion, until a boy named Roger realized that the five bowls he had consumed of what he thought was chicken soup was actually an Asian-inspired dish made with whale meat. The event ended with the janitor mopping up the three or four bowls of soup that Roger puked back up.
When Roger wasn’t eating whale soup, he was often getting into fist fights with another boy in the class. This was one of the most exciting points of the day because Roger was the heart throb of many of the girls and we would all jump up and down on the desks screaming, “Go Roger, Go!” and watching a fellow classmate get pummeled until the teacher was able to peel the two apart. These fights left such an impression on me that each night after my father came home from work, I would reenact that day’s fight and insert a bleep sound for each time one boy had cursed at the other.
Many of my other memories of fourth grade have faded, but sometimes when I go to visit my mom, I take out that cookbook and if I breath into it really deeply, the memories come back along with the faint smell of mimeograph ink.