Two women this week—one friend already beloved and the other someone I’m just getting to know—spoke to me in entirely different and unrelated settings of major disruptions in their lives and families of origin when they were nine years old and in the fourth grade; their stories connect with another friend’s, who told me years ago of the spiraling pain, disassociation, and encoding interference she suffered as a result of her parent’s divorce around the same time in her life. This week, I’ve been thinking about the events in these women’s lives, events with far reaches into their adulthoods, then connecting this similar plot point—with its profound and individual character development and thematic implications—of their narratives to my own, to my children’s and my granddaughter’s, to what I have witnessed and know about child development in general as well as what I have weathered as a parent and partner.
According to the late Louise Bates Ames and the late Frances L. Ilg, co-founders of the Gesell Institute of Child Development at Yale, researchers, professors, and co-authors of a series of child development books, for children through age 14: The odd-numbered years, in general, are times of developmental disequilibrium, and the even-numbered years, in general, are smoother stages. For my two oldest sons, fourth grade in the public school system was their least favorite year, full of various conflicts with peers and teachers, full of wrestling with elements of the curriculum. (One of the challenges of the way schools are traditionally organized is that we group people together by age, so awkward developmental stages become amplified by the sheer numbers of those experiencing that stage simultaneously—hence the combustible energy of middle schools.) I know from raising my sons that what they were going through at any particular time in their lives deeply affected me, and I know that the times of greatest discomfort for them also became more uncomfortable for me, by association. For my friends, the parental and familial ruptures coincided with their own already painful stage of growth, where the ground under their feet was already unsteady, where their next steps were already unsure.
When I think of my own childhood, it was so long ago and far away that I see the child and adolescent that I was then more from a parental perspective than from a sense of self; certainly, I’ve offered that girl parental nurturing and love that has changed—and continues to improve—the arc of her/my adulthood. All that being said, I skipped fourth grade, although I didn’t, of course, skip being nine years old. And the social situation I skipped into then lurched and skidded into territory that included my being the target of bullying—until I skipped grades one more time four years later and graduated from my minuscule rural school with a class of 14 other people who were mostly fine putting up with me. I knew even at the time that those who bullied me dealt with terrible strains—alcoholic parents, cheating parents, verbally abusive parents, harsh siblings, learning disabilities, eating disorders—but I’ve found out recently that a few of them were themselves childhood victims of the worst kinds of trauma. What if, in addition to all that, there was also just an essential misstep in the timing of our developmental stages? What if I was squirming through an odd-numbered age as they were sailing through an even-numbered one, and then the next year, the ratio shifted again? What if the main reason everything social finally worked with a huge sigh of relief at the second skipping was that I was more in sync with my classmates, our developmental stages evened up, if off by two?
On a somewhat related note: Not long ago, I woke up one morning to realize that the protagonist of my (unpublished) young adult novel is in eighth grade instead of eleventh; my realization of her true age means that a lot of the details in the novel (working title: Magnolia Blossoms) as it now stands need either tweaking or replacing. I have been working my way through the serious edits this requires, but the process was sludgy; earlier this week, I finally figured out the missing pieces that have provided focus and momentum. So, I’m going to take July away from this Friday letter to you and (after a trip to NYC with R. to hug friends in person!) plunge into the rewriting I need to do. In Welcome to the Weekend Edition 37 on Friday, August 6, I’ll report back to you on how an eighth-grade Magnolia is doing—and how ready she is to tell her story to potential agents again.