Fourth grade is the worst. Don't get me wrong. It's the best. My son is in fourth grade now; his school is great, and his teacher wonderful. But it's also the year an invisible switch flips, when new neurons in kids' brains connected to previously undiscovered power sources, where you, as a parent, begin to realize, sigh, now I have to start shaping decisions and perspectives. This is obviously a lot harder than teaching baseball and Scrabble, which I am also not good at.
I'm biased, probably. A lot of things happened to me in fourth grade. We moved to a new town, a tiny cluster of houses, gas stations and precisely one stoplight in a sleepy and farmy corner of Indiana. At the time, this represented abandoning everyone I ever knew in favor of -- and this is my real memory -- a house that had mice on a road with no name. I got glasses that year, but when I say glasses, I don't mean "the things you're wearing to read this newspaper," I mean "optometric dinner plates that Harry Caray would have rejected as too subtle, even in his current state." I had my first encounters with bullies, school discipline and crushes. The combination of these things drop-kicked me into some new level of life, some invisible maturity bracket I mark, pretty arbitrarily, in fourth grade.
It's also the year -- at least in this house -- that the construction of the rules of life begins, the year my oldest son is beginning to discern what is right and what is wrong and, most importantly, that stories can be malleable and dependent on point of view. I see little glimpses of that happening now, mostly in the stories that come back from the playground. Every day, my son has to report three things about his day, an idea we came up with when it became apparent that he had about as much interest in telling us about his day as he does covering his mouth when he sneezes. (To his teachers, friends and anyone who passes him in the buffet line, WE'RE WORKING ON IT, I SWEAR.) I don't know what it is about kids, but ask them to talk to you about something, and it's crickets. Assign an arbitrary number to that same task, and it becomes a tradition you maintain for like three years. Kids don't make any sense.
Anyway, it's things like this: A few weeks ago, my son climbed into the car, deposited his backpack on the floor, sneezed on the window probably and began telling the tale of Brayden (whose name has been changed), some newly christened playground nemesis. Like most of my son's stories, it began with a personal slight.
"Brayden was being mean to me at recess," my son said, clearly still distraught. "He called me a name that's a bad word."
Now here's where, as the father, you run into one of those little Choose Your Own Adventure moments that are probably impacting your son more than you realize. In this case, the choice was: Do I Move On With The Lesson, or Do I Want To Know What The Bad Word Was?
"What did he call you?" I asked, having made my decision like 20 seconds ago, "You can say it."
My son fidgeted, and make the little "hmph" sound he makes when he's about to reveal information of considerable import. "F-R-E-A-K," he spelled, all mumbly.
My first reaction: OK, this Brayden kid obviously needs detention immediately, preferably in a dungeon if the school has one, which it probably doesn't because of budget cuts. Second reaction: That's not a bad word really, but whatever. Wait, is it a bad word? It's not, right? I was expecting worse.
In any event, this was bad. Fourth-grade playground interactions are the elemental building blocks of future relationships, so naturally, this dispute required swift, decisive primary-male-role-model wisdom. So I asked my son what happened, which is difficult to do because:
1. He doesn't remember details accurately.
2. He tends to get distracted by things such as music, moving cars and whatever "Calvin and Hobbes" strip he's reciting to me out loud, repeatedly.
3. He forgets the beginnings of stories. For instance, the Bad Word story actually began a few hours before, in study hall, when my son hit Brayden's friend with a book. This IMPORTANT DETAIL transpired when my son, as is his custom, shoved his way into someone's personal space because that personal space contained a video game, which, as you have probably surmised, is the Actual Beginning of the Story. (Chapter One: How I Hit a Kid With a Book. Chapter 12: The Part Much Later When That Kid Quite Understandably Popped Off At Me.)
Fourth grade: The year when bad words might not be bad words, and kids start to learn a trait mastered by most adults: selective memory.