I first worked with fourth graders through the I Have a Dream after-school program in East Palo Alto. I taught Creative Writing/California History to a small group of low-income African American kids, and they were quite a handful. Later that year, I substituted in a fourth grade class of wealthy white kids at a private school in Menlo Park. I found that the kids were just as off the wall as they were in East Palo Alto, and in the same ways. It seems that across socioeconomic lines, fourth graders are a unique breed. They’re right on the border of puberty, no longer children but not yet preteens. As those infamous hormones are beginning to circulate, “tweens” enjoy testing their limits.
This is what I’ve noticed about my fourth grade classmates so far:
1. They stink.
After recess, there’s a slight, foul odor that hovers around the room, drawn from a collection of sweaty feet and armpits. I was in fourth grade myself when my mom gently suggested that I start wearing deodorant. At the time, I felt offended and probably left the room in a huff. In retrospect, however, I’m glad that I got the news from my mom at home than from a classmate in front of my peers. I found one of my first Teen Spirit sticks (pictured above) buried in one of the bathroom cabinets. It’s a weird artifact, but it makes me nostalgic all the same.
2. They’re starting to enter the phase where the What’s Happening to My Body? books come in handy.
The girls in particular are starting to have acne breakouts, and they have noticeably hairy legs. I remember getting my first zits in fourth grade and starting to shave my legs. I didn’t get why some moms didn’t let their daughters shave their legs yet, because I didn’t know that most women used real razors that could nick the skin. My mom’s Asian peach fuzz never warranted anything more than an electric Lady Schick.
I think my mom bought me The New Teenage Body Book that year. I found the letters to the editors so fascinating that I could probably recite a few from memory today.
3. Taboos and toilet humor fascinate them.
Since I’m acting as a fellow classmate rather than a disciplinarian, the kids tend to be comfortable sharing their secrets with me. Two of the girls in my table group urged one boy, Jose, to show me the song he’d written. He cautioned, “You don’t even wanna see it,” but passed me a folded up piece of binder paper anyway. The song, penciled sloppily and peppered with misspelled swear words, was about someone who “went to the bathroom and did daeria [sic],” then summoned his parents to clean him up. I said, “Pretty gross!” without much fanfare and passed the note back to the budding Tom Green.
Before class, Mrs. Lucas had mentioned that fourth graders were constantly testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. For example, when she’d asked the kids to share the sentences they’d written about dogs, one boy (perhaps Jose) had volunteered his: “The dog pooed.” Hearing this, I burst out laughing, glad that it wasn’t my job to inform the kids about appropriate classroom content. After all, as I like to say, “I love me a good poop joke.”
4. They’re all up in your business.
As I sat down in their class, two girls approached me and asked, “Are you Melia Dicker?” My reputation had apparently preceded me. Mrs. Aja had told them that I’d be visiting their class in preparation for my book. They seem to enjoy playing make-believe that I’m “the newest student,” as my buddy Elisa calls me, and eqipping me with tools: a pencil box, markers, and copies of the classwork.
The fourth graders were more distracted by my presence than the younger kids had been, chatting with me while Mrs. Lucas was giving instructions and making me anxious that we were all going to get in trouble. They’re so curious about my notetaking that I have to use shorthand, so they can’t read my observations out loud for everyone to hear.
While third graders still seem like kids, fourth graders seem more like mini teenagers. It’s like they’re doing a trial run of their awkward middle school years, and they sometimes act a little too grown up for their own good. It’s entertaining to watch them push the envelope — I never know what they’ll try next.
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What do you remember about fourth grade, or hitting puberty?