Short Stories Challenge – Note to Sixth-Grade Self by Julie Orringer from the collection How To Breathe Underwater

Published January 4, 2015 by bibliobeth


What’s Note to Sixth Grade Self all about?:

Note to Sixth Grade Self reveals a woman remembering her school days where had a turbulent and emotional time as a social outcast. Her purpose in re-visiting the past seems to be telling herself what she “should” and “shouldn’t” have done in particularly harrowing situations in her adolescence.

What did I think?:

I’m not sure where even to begin with this review, this story is one of the most powerful I have ever read and really affected me emotionally, to the point where I’m going to find it very difficult to write. Our narrator is female and appears to be looking back at a particular time in her adolescence when she was in sixth grade. She has a great passion for dancing and is both excited and nervous about going to her dance class, having practised her beloved cha cha cha routine with her father at home. From the beginning however, her memories of this time in her life are etched with sadness as she tells her sixth-grade self what she “should,” and “shouldn’t” do. This ranges from the mundane tasks like getting off the bus at the correct stop to interacting with her classmates, sometehing she obviously finds very difficult. At the dance class, the group is split into two sides, boys and girls and our narrator frets about what she should do in order to get a partner and not end up dancing with another girl when she is not picked. She looks to the “popular” girls, the queens of mean, Patricia and Cara for cues on how she should behave, stand, etc and although in the end she is paired with a boy with warts on his hands (which sends the mean girls into fits of laughter, of course) she is eager to show the dance teacher how hard she has been practising as there is a chance she may be picked to demonstrate the correct way to do the dance at the end of class.

Sure enough, her efforts pay off and she is picked to show the others the dance with the coolest and most popular boy in the class, Eric Cassio who also happens to be Patricia’s boyfriend. Heart-breakingly, even though she knows that she will pay dearly for having danced with him at school the next week, she thinks it has all been worth it. Now, we all know what teenage girls can be like – especially popular teenage girls who are also bullies and the way they treat our narrator for her crime is hideous, involving both emotional and physical violence and plenty of humiliation. There was one particular quote however that spoke volumes to me:

“Back in the classroom, before the teacher gets back, they push their desks into a tight little knot on the other side of the room. Finally you understand the vocabulary word ostracize.”

I thought the way in which the author got inside the mind of an adolescent girl that is being bullied was truly beautiful and although this story was quite painful at times to read, I did thoroughly enjoy it. In the end, Eric Cassio turns out to be a fairly decent guy even if he is not prepared to acknowledge our narrator at school he seems happy to do so in private. So the slight glimmer of hope that appears at the end tastes quite bitter-sweet as the narrator comes to the realisation that nothing is going to change. This is what makes a story like this so brilliant though, as it is painfully real. This is what happens. This is how teenagers react when they are still young enough to worry about losing face in front of their friends. Julie Orringer has written a poignant, excruciating and very memorable story in my opinion that I think should be on a must-read list for any adolescents of the same age. If this story was explored and taught in schools, perhaps bullies may think twice before preying on their victims? Or maybe that’s just my slight glimmer of hope.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


NEXT SHORT STORY: A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins from the collection Stories To Get You Through The Night


2 comments on “Short Stories Challenge – Note to Sixth-Grade Self by Julie Orringer from the collection How To Breathe Underwater

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