Occasionally I will share things that I have written in other places. Today will be one of those days.
I received an e-mail from a friend of mine a couple of years ago that asked if I ever reminisced about sixth grade. It was from a fellow named Paul Mazzoni that had been one of my best friends during that time. He brought up the fact that sixth grade had been one of the best years of his life and he was wondering if I had similar thoughts. Just the mention of sixth grade opens up a door in my mind that I gladly go through. I, like Paul, remember that year as being a magical time.
Sixth grade…if ever there has been a period in my life that I would consider utopic, it would be then. It’s really strange how certain eras of our past seem to be more rosy than others. For me, sixth grade was a watershed year of sorts. I’ve often told my wife that I remember very little about my childhood and I really don’t, but that year has been permanently etched into my thoughts. It’s not that my early years were traumatic or anything like that, they were pretty much uneventful. But sixth grade…man, the memories come rushing back in.
Every day the lunch bell signaled a mad dash that could only be matched by the running of the bulls down in Spain. Kids literally poured out of the slender brick buildings and ramshackle trailers out back and poured into the mint green cinderblock room that smelled of bleach and aerosol air freshener. In my mind’s eye the scene unfolds as it did nearly every day of that school year. The food has already been taken from the heated containers used to transport it from Nashville Elementary, where they actually had a kitchen, and placed onto Styrofoam serving trays. Kids are lining up to sample the latest culinary travesty.
I have already taken a seat at one of the folding tables and am busy dissecting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A bag of Doritos is sitting unopened next to a carton of chocolate milk that has probably never been cooler than room temperature. Andy Tyson has just exited the serving line and is making his way over to the table. Paul Mazzoni follows closely, all the while staring at the Jell-O Surprise that is wriggling around on his tray. They reach the table and plop down, one on each side of me. I mumble something unintelligible through a mouthful of peanut butter and eye the quivering green blob on Paul’s tray.
“That crap looks nasty,” Andy blurts out as Paul begins to poke at it with his finger. The gelatinous mass only springs back into its original shape and sits there menacingly. Andy has already inhaled half of the hotdog that had been resting before him. I open up the bag of Doritos and munch away as Paul continues to experiment on the Jell-O monstrosity.
I wash down the chips with a gulp from the now tepid chocolate milk and turn to Paul. “We gonna spend the night at your house Friday, or at mine?”
Paul shrugs his shoulders and munches on a soggy French fry. “We can go to yours if your mom doesn’t care.”
“She won’t. Just make sure to bring your sister’s E.L.O. tapes. I want to record them.”
Andy is now forging his way through his very own Jell-O Surprise. He slurps away as Paul continues to pick through the fries.
“Come on, I really want to make a copy of Jungle and Wild West Hero.”
“I’ll think about it.”
And that was our ritual. I hardly ever ate the school food, with the one exception being pizza. I don’t know what it was about that cheap school pizza, but I loved it. Even when I had to pull the waxy stuff off the bottom of the crust, I wolfed it down. Even now, there are days that I would kill for some good old cafeteria pizza, even if I had to wash it down with lukewarm milk.
There are so many things I remember about that time. Sitting in that cramped little trailer during Ms. Kane’s English class definitely left its mark on me forever. It was there that I first developed my love for writing and it was also there that my love for reading was encouraged to an almost unhealthy level. Ms. Kane had us read Jane Eyre in sixth grade. I don’t know how many of you have ever read that tome, but it was a tad bit above our reading level. We did trudge through it though. Ms. Kane also had us keep journals, a habit that I have held on to even up to this day. She truly left her mark upon me.
Our homeroom teacher was this quirky little lady named Ms. Casey. Even then, she didn’t seem very old and if I had to guess I would say that she couldn’t have been more than a year or two out of college. Memory doesn’t serve me well here, but I vaguely recollect her being kind of cute. She was pretty cool though. She allowed us to bring 45 rpm records from home and play them every Friday. Paul and I shared similar tastes in music and that only strengthened our bond. Ms. Casey also had our class put on a very loose interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Paul, being the most popular kid in class, ended up being Scrooge. I think I may have been a ghost. Andy was Bob Cratchett until he was removed from the big production for making Paul laugh too much. Laughter was a constant, that I remember vividly.
Our next teacher was an interesting fellow named Dan Gall. He taught science and math to all of us bright-eyed little kids. I can still see him in my mind. His hair was shoulder length and he had a fairly thick beard. He also had a big silver hoop in his left ear. I think he may have been the very first man I ever saw wearing an earring and for some reason, I thought he was the coolest person ever. Mr. Gall taught us two very important things that year. The first was a mathematical solution to the Rubik’s Cube. We spent half the year twisting and turning those things and that was considered learning, I was in heaven. I even managed to solve the thing in just under a minute and that was without pulling all the stickers off.
The second thing we learned was how to raise peacocks. Why we learned this I’ll never know. We took eggs and put them in an incubator. While they “cooked” we studied what was going on. Then the little things hatched and freaked us all out. We were expecting bright, fluffy birds. We got reptilian little creatures that looked very much like baby velociraptors. I still don’t know what he did with all those peacocks.
Sixth grade…what a time. Sitting in Ms. Kane’s class, trying to figure out why we were reading such a god awful book, listening to Dan Gall explain to a bunch of eleven year olds what parallel dimensions were, square dancing in Ms. Casey’s homeroom class; they are all part of me forever.
Andy, Paul and me sitting in that green lunch room, singing The J. Geil’s Band song, Piss On The Wall to the tune of E.L.O.’s Sweet Is The Night. E.L.O. alone are enough to send me careening back to that very special place. I can never explain just how much that band means to me. I guess they were the group that pushed me into music and it just happened to be during that brief, magical year.
Almost any song of theirs conjures up some sort of memory that I cherish, no other group has had that kind of effect on me. I can put on disc 2 of the Afterglow box set and it transports me to another time and another place. When I sit down and listen to Time, which I’m doing right now, it’s like being eleven years old again.
I can see myself now; a chubby little nerd wearing a blue IZOD shirt and corduroy pants. He’s playing Pac-Man on an Atari 2600 and there are legions of Star Wars figures scattered on the floor around him. Jeff Lynne is serenading me from the stereo speakers.
I came a long way to be here today and I left you so long on this avenue. And here I stand in the strangest land, not knowing what to say or do. As I gaze I gaze around at these strangers in town I guess the only stranger is me. And I wonder, oh I wonder, is this the way life’s meant to be.
Although it’s only a day since I was taken away and left standing here looking in wonder. The ground at my feet, maybe it’s just the old street but everything that I know lies under. And when I see what they’ve done to this place that was home, shame is all that I feel. And I wonder, oh I wonder, is this the way life’s meant to be.