To my fifth-grader, from my fifth-grade self

To whoever reads this notebook,

I don’t care if you laugh, cry, or even scream out loud from rage from reading this. I’ll try to write something new in it every day. This year is my first year of Junior High. I’m 12 years old and I love to argue.

So it says on the first page of a green, wide-ruled notebook I once fastened shut with a combination lock looped through two holes punched on the side. It is one of dozens of such journals I’ve saved, knowing even as I wrote them I’d one day want to remember all the small milestones of childhood.

Thursday I walked my daughter Lily to her classroom for the first day of fifth grade. As is customary for us, she was brave and I was weepy, though this year I was conscientious to wait until I’d turned a corner and wouldn’t embarrass her.

My mom friends always tease me. Most of them welcome the end of summer break, relishing the return to routine and an end to summer boredom battles.

I relate to the parents, but ultimately I think my emotions stem from empathy with the children. I’ve written it all down, so I remember it all well.

I know the exact circumstances in which our second-grade teacher paddled a classmate who fought with another. I’m ashamed to be the one who tattled.

In third-grade, superlatives that mattered to me: messiest, giggliest, meanest, quietest, silliest, prettiest, tallest and shortest. I thought “prettiest” was most important.

I know I’ve wanted to be in charge since at least fifth grade. From Space Camp (yes, I went to Space Camp): “We finally got our mission assignments today. I got what I wanted: commander!”

In eighth-grade, I thought this of a boy who is now one of my closest friends: “My mom forces me to like him.”


The older I got, the more elaborate the notebooks and the writing in them. Confessional and ranting sometimes. Pensive and restrained at others.

I’ve left gaps in some places. I’ve peppered others with snapshots and letters written by friends and boyfriends. More than one notebook has old rose petals tucked between pages. I’ve scribbled song lyrics and quotes from lecturing college professors.  I’ve created 25 years of lists – daydreams, bucket lists, people I love, groceries, places I’ve been, names I like, meals I want to cook.

When I was very young, I wrote in the third person.

In college, I wrote in the second.

At my daughter’s age, I wrote in the first and focused on facts.

That was the year our school was so overcrowded our classroom was in a hallway. My mother taught sixth-grade in a corner of the gymnasium, and my younger brother’s class met in the girls’ locker room. Midway through the first semester we moved into a new building on what was then the undeveloped side of Mt. Juliet. Twenty years later, it would become the busiest part of Wilson County, where the mega-retail/residential Providence center would be developed.

Fifth grade was the year I had a not-so-secret crush on a boy whose name my friends extracted using a Ouija board at a slumber party.

I was fitted for my first pair of glasses – bifocals for reading.

We held a funeral for a fly on the school playground.

By  spring, a presidential campaign was in full swing. I was one of two kids in the class whose parents wanted Dukakis to win.

Lily was nervous when I dropped her off this morning. “Remember, anything that makes you nervous is a good thing,” I told her.

She called in the afternoon to tell me how awesome the school day had been.

Please remember, sweet girl. You wore new shoes your grandmother bought you, a size just shy of mine. You carried your own ridiculously heavy backpack. You hesitated for a moment before you let me take your photo in front of the school. You were nervous, and then you weren’t.

I’ll write it down for both of us, just as I always have.

From a blue notebook, college-ruled:

Knight, if it’s you reading this and you’re not 13 or 14, congratulations on saving this so long. Try to remember back to 1989 if you’re confused… If you’re not me, if you’re my daughter, then don’t give up! Life isn’t as bad as I sometimes make it sound.


10 thoughts on “To my fifth-grader, from my fifth-grade self

  1. Pingback: She set fire to her diaries; I’d run into a burning house for mine « Knight Stivender's life in full

  2. Pingback: The air of solitude and the weight of loneliness « Knight Stivender's life in full

  3. Knight, you always seem to capture the moment and morph it into a complicated, intricate story of life! I’m thrilled you have Lily to watch and chronicle her life story!

    • Thank you, Susie. Most often I’ve been thinking about something for a while before I write it down. Sometimes someone will say something or something will happen that helps gel all those thoughts. In this case, it was a conversation with Becky after Lily’s first day.

  4. Dearest Knight, I wish that I could write and express my thoughts and feelings as well as you. I’m much better at making lists:
    1. You were in charge long before 5th grade -you were the director of many shows as a 5 year old (or younger) staring youself, your little brother, and whatever children were neighbors at the time
    2. I can’t imagine me ever being successful at forcing you to like anyone – you’ve always been pretty independent about things like that. However, I was right about that particular boy (he’s still a pretty good person) and I believe that his parents were probably the ones who shared your parents polical views at the time.
    3. I think that the year you had the fly funeral was the same year that you organized a detective agency to investigate a brick. It was also around that time that you organized the pie club.
    4. I remember the first day of your 7th grade year – there was “no one in the entire mini-school” that you knew at all – and yet you ended up having a great year and making some wonderful friends because that’s what you do.
    5. You still love to argue – that’s a family trait that skipped me (but no one else in the family).
    6. You made some of your closest friends at the age Lily is now.
    7. Your grandmother is 82.
    8. I love you

    • Mom,
      1. This, too, seems to be inherited. I’m listening from three rooms away to the evidence that would support it.
      2. You were right about John, yes. He wasn’t in my fifth-grade class, though. Jeni Lind was the other Democrat kid.
      3. I still have that brick, I think. It’s in my old bedroom at your house.
      4. Yes, you should read my journal from THAT year. (Or not.)
      5. I’m glad it skipped you.
      6. I think I’ve made my closest friends during times of transition when I’ve been vulnerable, gained perspective, and been (as the Tamblyns would say) “particular” / choosy.
      7. She is fabulous. Strong-willed and resolutely HER at any age.
      8. And I, you.

  5. Maybe this comments is because I’m watching the cutest two and half year old (ever) fight off sleep again, or because I’m up way to late, but Knight – this is an amazing picture into what you experienced.. what we all experienced… so awkward but every emotion was so HUGE at the time. Funny how we think we are sophisticated now, yet we are the same little kid in there. “I’m 12 years old and I love to argue.” That’s just priceless. Love that your daughter has the real you – then and now – to look up too Knight. She is one lucky girl.

    • Thank you, Kevin. You know what’s funny: every emotion is still so huge, we just get better at coping with them. I was with my grandmother in rural Alabama earlier this week. She is 83 and loves to argue. We all know better when to let her.

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