5th grade was a tumultuous year for me. As a military brat, I began the year in Tehran, then spent a short stint in Peyton Place’s elementary school and finished up in Falmouth, Mass.
Cape Cod was in many ways a dream come true. We were finally close to our relatives, in particular, Nana. There were beaches. And my classroom was participating in an educational experiment. Instead of studying traditional subjects, our curriculum was an integrated study of culture. I knew this was called MACOS, and Wikipedia tells me that it was indeed a thing. In fact, my memory of this program is remarkably clear. “Man, a Course of Study” was controversial and short-lived, but I loved it. I arrived during the primates unit which I am sure prompted many a child to dream of being Jane Goodall. But what really got me was the final unit which was a study of the Netsilik Inuits (or eskimos as we called them then.) I can picture with ease the broad faces of the Netsilik, the grainy film footage unable to hide their chapped faces and watering eyes brought on by harsh wind. Their lives were both simple and ingenious- caribou hunters who found ways to use every element of their prey and, despite the punishing conditions, displayed joy in their cozy igloos heated with open flames. I lost myself in this program. Math: divide up seal meat equitably among your classmates. Art: design a fantasy animal based on caribou features. Music: listen to the haunting melodies of bone whistles. All of it was new to me and I relished that window into a culture so far removed from my experience yet, to me, so successful. It was both education and escapism.
It was especially important for a shy, out of place 11 year old, weary from changing schools and trying, once again, to make friends. And then, for reasons I never understood, I became collateral damage in a “girl war.” Men,you may not be familiar with this concept. In brief, a group of girls targets another for ostracizing, shunning and general belittlement. Nowadays, it would be appropriately identified as bullying, but in 1969, it was just another day in the classroom. The main target, thankfully I suppose, was not me. But perhaps I sat near the target or talked to her or had perpetrated some other infraction that I did not comprehend. In any case, I ate lunch alone, stood in recess alone and kept my focus on the Netsilik.
And, just when I thought it could not get worse, the 5th grade girls were sequestered in the multi-purpose room for a secretive assembly. We were to view a film entrancingly titled “Growing up and Liking it.” Well, I had some inkling of these dark secrets. My sister, 16 months my elder, had garnered some facts-of-life intelligence and shared it with me on the school bus in Tehran. But she neglected to share the terrible thing that would happen to girls EVERY MONTH for the foreseeable future. I watched in horror as the film’s narrator elaborated the details of “sanitary” pads (how was this even remotely sanitary?) and elastic belts. If this was growing up, I sure as hell was NOT going to like it. And then, my thoughts returned to the honorable Netsilik whose head to toe animal skin coverings masked any indication of gender (although I had assumed that the ones who had babies strapped to their backs with cleverly designed bone and sinew harnesses might be female) and it dawned on me that even my eskimo sisters faced this lunar burden.
Springtime came to Falmouth, as as inexplicably as it started, the girl war ended. Once scorned, I was now included. Was it the shared solidarity we experienced in the multi-purpose room? Perhaps not. I only know that the girl war left me with an aloof exterior and an outsider identity that it took years to shed.
Blessedly, my puberty was late and in high school, to be able to fit in I found it necessary to lie about cramps and a “time of the month” I did not yet experience. But I did grow up and I do like it. It turns out that secrets revealed in that film are but a small morsel of what it means to be grown up.
Educational experiments and philosophies come and go. But I survived 5th grade and I really believe the MACOS creators were on to something. To them, and to the Netsilik Inuits, I offer my debt of gratitude.