Now the end-of-the-year sixth grade party is coming up. Part of it is a dance. I won’t know what to do even if I could face a boy and not look at my feet.
The party/dance committee is Betsy Greenleaf and Katie Roppler along with Debbie Calder and Cindy Perkins from my Girl Scout troop. I don’t know how kids get picked for committees.
The afternoon of the party, I get dressed in my pink hip-hugger skirt and my chartreuse poor boy sweater because Mr. Tarantino, the vice principal, says girls have to wear dresses or skirts to all school functions. My mom drops me off.
When I walk into the foyer, there is a sign with two arrows. One points towards the cafeteria and says games. The other points towards the gym and says dance. I go right towards the games. All the lunch tables are set up along the walls. Most chairs are stacked. Few of the tables have actual games on them. Each one is more like a contest, like at the Altamont Fair. And each area has either a teacher or a PTA parent supervising. There are tables topped with empty 7up bottles for a ring toss. There’s a hula hoop contest in the corner by the dirty dish window. Plastic bowling pins are set up in a careful triangle and parent volunteers reset the pins after each kid throws a strike or a spare with a plastic ball. There’s a table where kids are playing checkers and chess with Miss Cleary, my math teacher. There’s a table with Mr. Funicello, my science teacher where kids are bashing open geodes we got on our field trip to Herkimer. Mr. Tyler, my English teacher is drawing caricatures at a table next to the Coke machine.
I go to the nail pounding table where my social studies teacher, big- bellied Mr. Roberts, has set up two boards on either side of the table. Between them is a box of flat head nails. Mr. Roberts sets the timer for each pair of contestants and yells go! The kid who pounds the most nails in the board before the dinger goes off is the winner.
Each time you win any game, you get tickets you can spend at the school store, a small table in a closet by the seventh grade stairwell stocked with school supplies and novelties. It’s manned by kids from each grade during that grade’s lunch. I don’t know how you get picked to be a store keeper either.
At the nail pounding table I start to win tickets. Mr. Roberts says he’ll give me twice the amount if I can beat a boy, and it’s mostly boys, so I’m getting rich. It’s mostly dweeby boys like Russell Gherkin and Donny Sanborn, so it isn’t hard.
I’m excited to take my pile of tickets to the school store on Monday and buy some chubby bear erasers and a Yale book cover. Blue is my favorite color, and I like the Yale bull dog. Junie Poland next door used to be my babysitter. She had a bull dog named Pooh that would fetch a rubber barbell and bring it back to her all drooly and gross.
Since I have the beginning of a blister on my right thumb, I walk over to the refreshment table. From there I can see there’s no one in the hallway between the games and the gym. I grab a handful of cheese puffs, a Dixie Cup of Hawaiian Punch and walk up the stairs to the main foyer. Munching and slurping, I pass the eighth grade science labs. By the time I hit the eighth grade social studies classrooms, I can hear “Hold On I’m coming” by Sam and Dave. I take the last gulp of my screaming pink drink and drop the cup in the trash can at the end of the hall. Brushing the orange crumbs off my fingers, I round the corner.
Before me is the huge gymnasium. The gargantuan accordion door that usually separates the boys’ side from the girls’ is folded back. A DJ is set up in front of a pile of sweaty wrestling mats. Nothing is like an Arthur Murray dance class. It’s hard to make out who is dancing with who. Bodies are bopping, swaying, twisting, twirling. The music quakes the space. My body begs to shake like the other kids. My brain says this is my usual station, the outsider, content not to get involved. My instinct says stay by the door in case I need to make a break.
Debbie Calder sees me in the door frame and runs over. “What are you waiting for?” She grabs my hand and pulls me into the middle of the gym. I let her. She moves her arms up and down in front of her like a monkey. “This is The Monkey.” She makes swimming motions in front of her. “This is The Swim.”
She jerks her back, and I say, “This dance is called The Jerk?”
She laughs. “Yeah, come on. Try it.”
The DJ is playing, “Wooly Bully,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, one of my favorites. I can’t keep still. My knee marks the time. My feet begin to shuffle. The rhythm wriggles down my spine to my hips. I begin dancing and dancing to: I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, “Shot Gun” by Jr. Walker and the All Stars, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown, The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” “Love Potion Number Nine” by the Searchers, The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “No Where to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas, and “The Name Game,” by Shirley Shirley Bo Birley, Bonana Fanna Fo Firley, Fee, Fy Mo Mirley, Shirley Ellis. When the set is over I smell like one of the sweaty wrestling mats, but I don’t care.
The DJ puts on Sonny and Cher’s duet, “I got You Babe,” and the floor empties. Danny Weld puts both arms around Donna DiCaprio’s waist. Donna puts both arms around Donny’s neck and her bouffant hair on his shoulder. Rhonda Carpenter and Ronnie DiPoli assume the same bear hug. There is no counting one two three, one two three. All gloves are off.
My focus turns from the center of the gym to Lisa Kelleher, Vicky Moser, Leslie Meyers, Timmy O’Toole, and Jerry Baumgartner, faces in the crowd of kids clinging to the wall. We’ve all backed away from this slow, smothering dance. Maybe I’m not the only one on the outskirts looking in, grappling with the fear of what others may think, wondering how to make the quantum leap into boy/girl relationships.
But when the DJ puts the needle on “Do you Love Me?” by the Contours I jump back in with the rest now that I can DANCE! Watch me now, huh! It’s not work! I don’t have to think about it. My body knows what to do, untrained, unrestrained, wild with the freedom of being myself!
In sixth grade I didn’t know all you had to do to work in the school store was ask. I didn’t know all you had to do to be on the dance committee was volunteer. I didn’t know all you had to do to be comfortable with others was find someone you trust and be yourself. It sounds simple, now, but in junior high this was emotional rocket science. Thank you, Debbie Calder, for taking my hand, and for one brief afternoon, pulling me onto the dance floor of my own life. I won no tickets for that invisible victory. But it was a prize more precious than chubby bear erasers or even a Yale book cover. For the joy set before me, maybe I could do it again.