A friend from grade school posted our 5th grade class picture on Facebook. In it, I am 9 years old – a little too young for 5th grade. The explanation is simple: due to a gross bureaucratic error, the Chicago Public Schools accidentally hired a gifted teacher for our first grade class. In June of 1972, 22 of her students tested with reading scores too high for 2nd grade. In September of 1973, nearly our entire class skipped to 3rd grade, and our gifted teacher was – of course – laid off, thus restoring the natural order of professional mediocrity to Lincoln School.
Fifth grade was okay. In Social Studies, we watched a series of perplexing movies about Eskimos. The boys loved it when the Aleut father carved up raw seal meat and fed it to his children. Our science teacher – Kasimir Micah – tricked me into inhaling ammonia as an “experiment” in class, leaving me crying and gasping for oxygen. (He was my first true sadist – I’ve known a few others, two of them teachers.) We took ballet, and went on sleep-overs, and turned 10 that April.
At the Chicago Park District field house where we went for ballet class, a neglected lilac bush drooped over the landing at the top of the cement stairs. When Miss Mazur excused her brood of ballerinas for a break, Pammy and Cheryl and I curtsied with the earnest drama of dying swans, and scurried outside to smell The Lilac. Jostling to reach the closest branches, we scuffed our pink tights and slippers with rust as we leaned against the crumbling painted iron railing, and pulled the curtain of perfume against our noses. At 10, I conceived The Lilac as belonging completely to me. I inhaled its scent as if I could become A Lilac, until Miss Mazur would send someone outside to find us. Dreamy with pleasure, we might spin and leap through the stale dark hallway, back to our barres to turn out our feet and point our toes, trailing gravel and paint chips across the studio floor.
I don’t look that different from the 9 year-old in the 1973-74 Lincoln School class picture. My face has reclaimed the roundness of a self with little to gain from prettiness, a self who is on the outside of a certain feminine territory where she simply doesn’t belong. Instead, I crawl beneath branches hanging so low their panicles of flowers tangle in the grass. I’m sure I look ridiculous, my orthopedic work shoes poking out from under the twigs and leaves, as if a tornado dropped a Lilac Bush on the Witch of Lake Woebegone. Overhead, birds chatter and swap places between old thick limbs carrying their load of spring treasure as close to the sky as they can. I pull a cluster of lilacs closer, my whole being permeated with their breath. I lie there as long as I want, until it is almost too dark to take pictures. As I walk home, I feel like dancing.
No. I haven’t really changed that much at all.