Tall in Sixth Grade

By Connie Swartzman  

I was five-foot-six and the tallest girl in sixth grade, not something a girl wanted to be.  Unable to follow my mother’s advice to ignore teasing, I winced when boys in my class snickered, “How’s the weather up there?”  It did seem as though I towered over everyone – including the teacher. There was one exception – Stanley Milheimer. He had the height the other boys lacked and none of their meanness.  But the girls in the class overlooked these qualities as Stanley, with shoulders too narrow, middle too wide, and legs too long, charged about with an awkward exuberance. He was one of those kids who today would probably be labelled A.D.D., but in those days we simply considered him obnoxious.

The Milheimers lived across the driveway from us in a brick row house very much like ours (and most of the others in our West Oak Lane neighborhood) so close that we could have looked into each other’s houses. Although Stanley and I were the same age, played in the same driveway and even walked the same route to school, it was never together.

Our teacher, Mrs. Shaeffer, though shorter than Stanley and I (and many of the other students as well), had a no-nonsense manner about her.  She never had to raise her voice.  Maybe it was her erect posture, the set of her thin lips, or the deliberate tone of her voice, but we knew to be on our best behavior in her classroom.  This wasn’t easy for Stanley.

It was not his schoolwork (anyone could see how bright he was) but even at his best he was irritating. Hoping to deter some of his boisterousness, Mrs. Shaeffer placed him at a desk directly in front of her, making him all the more visible to the rest of the class. Whenever she asked a question, Stanley, half out of his seat (going “Oo… oo… oo” or  “Me… me… me” or “I know… I know… I know”) would frantically wave not only his arm but his entire body, hoping she would call upon him.  She would valiantly struggle not to let his relentless presence get the better of her. Gently but firmly, she would remind him: “Stay in your seat.” “Don’t call out the answers.” “Please, give the other students a chance.” Usually this worked. But on the Friday afternoon before Christmas (this could have been a particularly difficult day) as Stanley wagged himself excitedly in her face, Mrs. Shaeffer could take it no longer. All the irritation, frustration, and anger she had managed to control throughout the year burst forth.  A vein bulged from the side of her neck.  I don’t remember her words but they were loud, furious and unexpected.  Stunned, our entire class - including Stanley - was abnormally subdued for the rest of the afternoon.  Then for the next few days it looked like Stanley had learned a lesson.  He did not call out, stayed in his seat, and raised his hand politely.  But it wasn’t long before this all changed.  And to no one’s surprise he returned, once again, to his normal self.

One Thursday, Mrs. Shaeffer announced that on Thursday afternoons we were going to learn square-dancing.  Most of us were glad about this – a change from the usual routine, a chance to get out of our seats and move around. But then, to my dismay, she began to pair the girls and boys in the customary way - by height. Short girls - short boys, taller girls - taller boys, tallest girl - tallest boy. A typical insensitive sixth-grade girl, I had no sympathy for Stanley, only for myself.  Looking back, I regret that disgust and embarrassment were all I was able to feel each time I had to dance with him. And it certainly never entered my mind that he might be just as unhappy having to dance with me.  

Eventually sixth grade ended, summer vacation passed, and I started junior high school. On the first day of school all the girls were told to line up in size order. As always I headed for the end of the line and then, an astonishing thing happened. Eight other girls lined up behind me.