I hated sixth grade. It was the year my parents made me go to Christian school, after I’d finally and painstakingly eked out an identity for myself at Chatterton, the public elementary school in my district. I wasn’t the prettiest, the most popular, or the best actress, AND I’d gotten dumped in fifth grade for a girl in the nearby Catholic school. But by the end of that year, I could imitate most of Madonna’s Virgin Tour dances, and could kick anyone’s ass at Connect Four. What more does anyone need, really, in terms of carving out a place in this world?
But I was wrenched from public school, and forced to mingle at South Shore Christian with people from all over Long Island, who were pretty devout in their faiths that I didn’t understand. Like, all of a sudden I was supposed to stop trick-or-treating because those creepy comics from The Rock said so? Screw that. I loved that store, bought my performance tracks, wavy-pastel stationery, and “Jesus is Cool, Haters!” tees, while feeling just as close to God as ever when I came home with a pillowcase full of Snickers bars.
Then there was that one day. At SSCS, we didn’t get to dress up for Halloween or dance, ‘cause, offensive, so we did what anyone would do – skirt around the law. No Halloween costumes? We’ll have a costumed party in the gym! No dancing? We’ll have banquets with fancy dresses and corsages! Also in the gym! Except for prom! Which will not be called prom!
One particular day in sixth grade, we were having a Christmastime “Represent your ethnic background!” party. It was the reward for an ongoing series of projects that I actually really enjoyed. Lots of research, essays, and even a topographical map assignment 😮
I came home one Autumn day in ’86, SUPER excited about all things school, thanks to the excuse to work with clay and magic markers, not to mention costumes and recipes in the final leg of this wonderful academic challenge.
If you’ve ever met me, you know I get annoyingly excited about future endeavors, and that was still the case 27 years ago, when I begged my mother, after weeks of creating my 3D map on the dining room table, in between frantic paper writing, to make Swedish meatballs for the end-of-project-Christmas party.
“You never make them, but I can’t imagine anything else,” I said with great urgency, as the memory of last year’s fifth grade food party weighed heavy on my soul. Then, I was scheduled to bring in my mother’s famous Chinese chicken with walnuts, but everything got derailed when she and a few other Catholic mothers got upset that the party was on a Friday in Lent. So my mom made cookies instead.
Delicious, but not the same, even though I understood her crisis of faith. Still, a year later it was like, we’re not even Catholic anymore, thanks to YOUR decision, so can you please make these meatballs, for the love of God?
My mother raised a figurative eyebrow, and indulgently nodded at my 11-year-old angst, before responding with:
“Sure, Judith. But, you know you aren’t Swedish?”
Apparently, I’d gotten confused somewhere along the line, thanks in great part to my mother’s Swiss-dotted dress from the ‘70s that I grew up seeing in the (satanic?) Halloween clothing pile, but always rejected because it wasn’t that cute.
And yes, I do realize that Swiss is also not Swedish. Hindsight.
But after my mother’s irritating laughter and my own humiliation had subsided, I ran with it. NO ONE HAD TO KNOW, as my mother pointed out, that I was not in fact Swedish.
Swiss-dotted dress? Check. Ambitious posterboard map of a country that vaguely resembles Long Island? Check. Backstory of Saint Lucia memorized? Check.
And of course, they were all accompanied by creamy meatballs – something that even before I shunned meat, would not partake in, as I hate cream sauce. But when representing one’s fake nationality, one must be authentic.
I don’t remember how Mary Kate and Shannon worked it out in terms of who was going to be Irish that day – all three of our actual backgrounds, but I’ll never forget Mary Kate’s moment in the spotlight, when she performed an amazing Irish jig and it was like whoa, who let the professional dancer into our sixth grade classroom? There will NEVER be a time, since that day, where you can’t hand me a beer and put on a Dropkick Murphys song, and not expect me to do the little bit of the jig she taught all of us afterwards.
And I don’t remember when exactly she and Shannon became my friends, along with Ruth and Adenike, but they did.
Sixth grade sucked. But it was worth riding the rocky waters to get to the awesomeness that was to come, and even existed in little pockets, on days like this.