The year I was 10 years old, my world fell apart.

We spent the summer between Grades 5 and 6 in Italy, in the sun-bleached fields near my father’s home town. Every few days we drove an hour to the Adriatic Sea and dove in the waves and let ourselves dry in the sun. We would eat lunch at seaside restaurants where my parents would have the fish and I, the pickiest eater alive, always chose the pasta. Even though I was not fluent in Italian, I managed to spend quality time with my grandmother and cousins. There were barn cats and wild, runabout puppies that belonged to the farmer down the road and lots of brown children who never wore pants. My grandmother’s farm housed a couple of ornery chickens and a mean rooster, all of whom would end up cooked tender in a pot of tomato sauce before the end of the summer.

The blazing sun must have lasered my pituitary gland because puberty started stretching its fingers through my body while I lay blissfully unaware, flat on my back in the scratchy wheat fields, staring at the clouds through the boughs of an old tree. Paying no attention, I grew at least two inches that summer, straight up, as they say. The beautiful shoes we had bought in Italy didn’t fit when we got them home.

I missed the first week of school in September. Everyone stared at me when I walked in the classroom. I had left for summer vacation a cute, regular-looking Grade 5 student with slightly crooked teeth but I was returning a scarecrow of a girl, all feet and hands and loose limbs and pimples, oh the pimples, straddling my two worlds without a hint of grace.

Yesterday some of my facebook friends from elementary school found our Grade 6 teacher and then emailed me: OMG she messaged me back OMG she’s looking so good for 50+ OMG wasn’t she totally the best teacher ever! and I felt suddenly delusional, like, where was I? Where were they? Was it all in my head? Grade 6 sucked. Didn’t it suck for everyone?

You guys. Grade 6 was the worst year of my life.

I was in a different class than my best friend. She wrote me a letter while I was in Italy, telling me we probably wouldn’t be friends that year because it was too hard to be friends and be in different classes. True enough; she rallied the girls in her class behind her (and she had a week’s head start!) and I attempted a rally of the girls in mine (Nerd Army: represent!) and we spent the year fighting the useless fights of young girls.

Then: sometime after my 11th birthday, I got my period for the first time. All those pads and tampons and horseback riding to worry about.

Then: before the school year could fucking end already, I got chicken pox and missed two weeks of school, coming back with rashes and scars on top of my pimples. Come on. Really?

I remember all of that with a dull, familiar ache from having turned the memories from hand to hand so many times. What I remember with clear, sharp pain is my Grade 6 teacher.

She was a Very Attractive Woman. And she was disgusted by me, by my sweatiness, by my greasiness, by my inability to walk without tripping, by my slouch as I tried to shrink myself to a normal height again.

But wait, is that true? I felt ugly and I felt like she treated me unfairly because I was ugly and I hated her because she was beautiful and because she was nicer to the cute girls and boys in the class. But I also know that I was becoming a difficult kid, trying to process all that puberty. Maybe she was just being a teacher.

Except: she plucked her eyebrows bare and drew in new ones. And I remember thinking that she was psychotic for doing so. I might even had written something on the chalkboard about it. Or maybe not.

I hated her because I thought she hated me. I thought she was out-of-control mean to me because I was less than perfect. I thought she over-valued cleanliness and adorability. At a time when I was the starkest contrast imaginable to those values.

I reacted by becoming a (slightly) bad kid; by swearing a lot, by becoming more sarcastic than an 11-year-old had any right to be, by passing a lot of notes in class that said terrible things about people; things I didn’t even believe but wrote down for the shock value.

Ugly is as ugly does.

She reacted by giving me detention, telling other teachers about me, treating me like a bad kid.

I just wanted to know if I could still be loved, still be respected, still be treated fairly, if I was this different person, this mutant, pubescent asshole. And from her, the answer was ‘no.’ Why should it have been ‘yes’? She was my teacher, after all, not my mother.

(My mother. Who was not a talker, but a normalizer and not in the “don’t worry, everything will be fine” way but in the “let’s get on with things and pretend that never happened” way.

And of course my father, who was definitely not prepared to talk to his daughter about becoming a woman.)

It was unfortunate timing. My teacher was in front of me every day being well groomed and attractive just as it was dawning on me that there *were* pretty girls and that I was *not* one of them and that there *would* be people who would judge me based on my appearance, who had, in fact, been doing it for years, while I had been happily unaware because until then I had passed. I had met the standards, been one of the cute ones.

I was consumed by my new physical imperfection, emotional confusion and then rejection by people I had felt certain were trustworthy. Parents. Best friends. Teachers. The principal of the school who had loved me the previous year and now shook his head when he saw me in the halls. I wasn’t naughty, I was just ugly, awkward. Did that mean ugly and awkward were naughty?

Everything was all fucked up. And I was only 11. According to Judy Blume I had YEARS left of adolescence.

Somehow, my parents kept me around even though I know they were completely flabbergasted and annoyed by me.

And eventually Grade 6 ended.

My Grade 7 teacher was the best antidote to Grade 6. Among many other things – including a teaching style that just went well with my learning style – he gave me something to hold and look at and turn over in the light when I felt most dark. He wrote on my report card, “[she] has a wonderful sense of humour and I greatly enjoyed teaching her this year. And PS: cheesefairy – math is beautiful.”

This sustained me for many years. Oh thank god, someone saw through it, someone saw past my pimples and my bad attitude and found something to like about me and even threw in a good-natured jibe because I am OK, I am normal (in the good sense of the word) I can take a good-natured jibe and I am going to come out the other side of this. Beautiful or not. Popular or not. Someone I like thinks something I hate is beautiful. Anything is possible.

* * * * * *

We are in the last leg of toilet training with Trombone right now and I finally made the connection tonight between his terrible behavior this week and the fact that he is wearing underpants all day. And my own terrible 11th year. He is in that same awkward, in-between place where I was; he is becoming a boy, not still a baby, reaching out, testing, being as bad as he knows how. Will we still love him, especially when there is another baby right behind him, one who can step into his shoes and his pants and his shirts? What does it *mean* to be a big boy, anyway? Is there really no going back? Do I not have a choice? Why are your faces so eager when you look at me? What do you know that I don’t?

* * * * *

It makes me afraid for adolescence with my boys, remembering how scared and scary I was for those years. I wince thinking about my kids as teenagers. But I want them not to see the wince. I want them only to see the occasional hug at night, the porch light left on, the silent breakfasts. The unfaltering support.

Which I had, but did not see until just now.

I guess you don’t have to see something if it’s helping hold you up. The fact that you’re not flat on the ground is evidence enough.

* * * *

To sum up: Glad to have survived Grade 6. Glad to have two loving parents, no matter how I might have liked them to be different. Glad to have the time to sit and ponder these things, even if a deadline might be a good thing, in that I would stop writing and just post, already. Whether or not I think I have achieved salience.

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