Fourth Grade: The Unkindest Cut

by Dana Talusani

This summer, my husband and I have begun referring to our 9-year-old daughter as “The Sloth.” This seems unkind, but it’s not far from the truth. My younger daughter has never been the sportiest of kids—even when she was a kindergartner, she’d choose coloring books over hopscotch, cartoons over kick-the-can. She’s an indoor kind of girl. She doesn’t like getting dirty or sweaty, and she withers under the noonday sun like a hothouse flower.

She’s always been this way, but this summer, it’s gotten ridiculous. Not only does she want to spend the entirety of her summer playing Minecraft and devouring comic books, she’s militant and mouthy if we suggest she do anything else.

“Gross. It’s too hot to jump on the trampoline.”

“I hate hiking. There’s too many bugs.”

“The swimming pool is so crowded all the time. I’m not going.”

In the past, we’d be able to cajole her into outdoor activities, and with a little prodding, she’d acquiesce and in the end, we’d have a good time together. This year, we have The Sloth. My husband’s solution to dealing with The Sloth: He enrolled her in biweekly tennis lessons—expensive, private tennis lessons. Tennis lessons that I, as the stay-at-home person, am usually responsible for taking her to.

At first, it wasn’t so bad. She’d sigh a little and close her laptop and dawdle getting dressed. Then the eye rolls started. Midsummer, she was groaning audibly and stomping up to her room and slamming dresser drawers as she rummaged for tennis shorts. The ride to the lesson was a sullen affair, but by the time we arrived at the tennis courts, she’d gotten a grip.

“She’s so sweet and agreeable,” her tennis instructor told me. “She always does what I ask her to and doesn’t give me any guff.”

Heh, lady, I thought. You have no idea what it takes to get her here. Agreeable? My fat fanny.

Actually, my daughter is agreeable, to everyone but her parents. Last week, I handed my daughter a hairbrush and announced that it was time for her to get ready for tennis. She scowled, snatched the hairbrush out of my hand and began to thunder upstairs. Suddenly, she stopped, swiveled and hurled the hairbrush down the staircase with fury. The force of it broke the hairbrush and made a startling bang on the hardwood floor—the dog, the cat and her sister all came running.

“What the hell?” I shouted, anger flooding my head.

She stood on the staircase with her fists clenched, but her eyes were wide and rapidly flooding with tears. She looked like she’d shocked even herself.

“It was an accident,” she said.

“No, it most definitely was not an accident, because I saw you do it! I was standing right here! You smashed that on purpose, Miss.”

She shook her head, crying in earnest now. “It was an accident. I mean, I didn’t mean to do that, I swear. I didn’t mean to do that…I just…I don’t know why I did that…I…”

“Get dressed and get in the car,” I said in a steely tone. “Now. We’re late.”

There was silence in the car, but my brain was flooded with noise:

This is your pacifist child. The child who hates to fight or even disagree.

This is your sensitive child. The sweet one. The one who is gentle and has never been aggressive.

This is your agreeable, rule-following child who speaks softly and loves cat videos on YouTube.

So who is this child, the one who thunders and destroys things? While my daughter lobs balls and practices backhand, I call my husband. “What’s happening to her?” I cry into the phone, pacing in the parking lot. “She has never, ever done anything like this. She was so angry, just out-of-control furious. I think she even scared herself.” He’s at work and he’s busy, but he listens and tells me that we’ll talk when he gets home.

“She was spectacular today,” her tennis teacher says, handing me her racquet.

Silence in the car. She bounces the racquet nervously on her knees and looks out the window.

Later, I bring her a fresh towel after her shower. I walk into the bathroom like I always do and say, “Hey, here’s a warm towel. Don’t throw it on the floor when you’re done, okay?” There’s a flash out of the corner of my eye. My daughter quickly crosses her arms over her chest, swivels away from me and says, “Okay, thanks.”

This is my 9-year-old daughter. I’m so stupid. You’d think I’d have learned, because I have a daughter four years older than this one, and I should be smarter by now. I’ve already done this, already gone through the riot of emotions and confusion and changes. Hell, I’ve gone through it twice, because the first time was my own. You’d think I’d remember.

But I always forget. I always forget how soon it starts for girls in my family. My older child got her period in fifth grade. I was stunned and unprepared. I’d armed her with the pubescent arsenal—The Care and Keeping of You and the essential works of Judy Blume—but she didn’t want to talk about it. I remember how my sister got her period in the fourth grade. She was terrified that she’d pooped her pants. My mother hadn’t talked to her about puberty; she didn’t think she’d have to, not for several years. And then she had to. Can I blame her? How can you prepare your daughter for such confusing and adult things when she is 9-years old, in the damn fourth grade, learning how to write a perfect paragraph, on the cusp of long division, clearly still in childhood territory?

I don’t know.

I dial the phone and whisper into my husband’s ear, “Puberty. Buckle up.”