Every year, when the class assignments got mailed, I called my friend Anice Williams to see whose class she was in. From the time we were in kindergarten, Anice and I were in the same class. Sixth grade was no different – we were again assigned the same teacher. That pretty much guaranteed that it was going to be a good year.
This year was going to be different, though – we were sixth graders. We were going to rule the school. My neighborhood school was one of those uniquely American, totally idyllic places you only hear about in the movies. We had kids from all walks of life: immigrants, rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids…you name it, our little school had it all. And the best part was none of us knew this wasn’t how every school was. Our teachers loved and cared for us, they invested in us and pushed us hard.
Sixth grade was no different. As the oldest kids in the school, we were the role models: safety patrols; student government; the ones the little kids looked up to. Our school was also a performing arts school – publicly funded and completely magical. At the end of the year, the sixth graders got to put on a show for the whole school (and our families). This wasn’t just some lame school play, either. Our teachers choreographed a dance to “Word Up” by Cameo, one of the coolest songs of 1986. They got a class of 11- and 12-year-olds to pop-and-lock on stage, in front of the entire school. We spent the whole year preparing our show, which was called This Land, Our Land, and looked out our country’s history, geography, and culture through song, dance, drama, and art. It was brilliant, actually, the way our teachers wove the lessons we were learning in “traditional classes” into the content of our show.
One of the first things we had to do was learn the lyrics to “Fifty, Nifty United States,” which included the name of every state – in alphabetical order! I remember when we got that news, and just knew I would never be able to do it. All 50 states? No way. During the song, each kid held up a sign when their state was called (I still remember, my state was Massachusetts). And lo and behold, before the final performance toward the end of the year, I had learned all the states (in song!). We had all come a long way since the beginning of the year. And, to this day, I can still name them all, but I have to hum my way through the song to do it. (I also still know all the words to Word Up.)
Sixth grade was worth looking forward to for so many reasons – and looking back, it’s one of my fondest memories as a kid.