Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

By Barthe DeClements. Published 1981.

So, Jenny is kind of a little bitch. But so is everyone in her class. A new girl, Elsie Edwards, joins their class, and she’s overweight. And everybody’s all “ew” and “she’s gross” and “I don’t want her in our class”. And her mother whispers to Mrs. Hanson, even though everyone can hear, that Elsie is on a special diet, and can only eat what she has packed for lunch. Which is a thermos of broth, a carrot, and a pear. So she asks people for their cornbread, and then gets in trouble for it.

When she does the same thing with cake the next day, the teacher makes her spit it out in the trash.

Jenny and Elsie are in the same group for a social studies project. The group finishes early, so they talk. Marianne, who is actually nice, asks Elsie if she’s seen any movies lately. Elsie says her sister and mother did, but she didn’t go, since her mother’s car only holds two. Marianne says she’ll go next time then. Elsie doesn’t think so, because she doesn’t think her mom wants anyone to know she belongs to her, because she’s too fat. Jesus Christ.

Different people’s lunch money keeps disappearing. I don’t know why they all keep it in or on their desks, especially after it keeps happening. Jenny says she won’t keep it in her pocket because she’ll lose it. Even though she brings a purse to school. Whatever. Ten-year-old reasoning. Anyway, Mrs. Hanson and the principal get all in on it, but nobody fesses up.

Jenny goes to the 7-11 after school to get milk for her mother, and sees Elsie there, buying candy. And she pays with it with two quarters, which is how everyone pays for their lunch. So Jenny is sure she’s the one stealing the money. But her parents point out it’s just circumstantial evidence at this point.

But the next day, Elsie has candy at lunch. Mrs. Hanson is on it in a flash, and asks where she got it. Elsie says it was in her lunch. Mrs. Hanson says she’s going to call her mother and ask. Later in the day, the principal comes and takes Elsie away, and Jenny and her friends see Elsie’s mother’s car in the parking lot after school.

Jenny doesn’t get to see what happens next, because she gets the flu, but her friend Diane keeps her updated. Elsie has to stay in the office during recesses, and she’s not allowed to be left alone. Diane also met a girl at a skating party that goes to Elsie’s old school, and Elsie used to steal there, too, mainly food.

Elsie does start losing some weight. But her mother won’t buy her any new clothes, so she has to pull up her pants all the time.

One day Mrs. Hanson calls everyone up to her desk individually to see their grades. When Elsie stands up, her skirt falls down, and just about everyone sees. Everyone laughs, and Elsie runs out of the room. Mrs. Hanson gets pissed, at least, and makes them do math. And she asks Jenny to go check on Elsie. She’s in the bathroom, crying. Jenny suddenly feels bad for her. “I had never thought of Elsie as a human being. Just a fat girl.” Oh, for the love of Christ.

Jenny actually talks to her, trying to make her feel better, telling her it’s not a big deal, everyone will forget about it. Elsie says it doesn’t matter anyway; she won’t be there next year. She’s on probation for the rest of the year, and then her mother’s sending her to boarding school. Jenny tells her she’ll be her friend, but Elsie says Jenny won’t want to be seen with her after she stops feeling sorry for her. Then Mrs. Hanson interrupts them, so they can’t finish their conversation. But Jenny at least gets onto people at recess for making fun of Elsie.

Jenny is having a terrible time with math; she just doesn’t get fractions. She gets a D- on her report card. Ouch. Her parents talk about getting her a tutor. Jenny remembers how good Elsie is at math, and suggests she tutor her. They could pay her fifty cents an hour, and then Elsie can pay everyone back the money she stole. Her parents agree to it, if Elsie does. She does, and after a week, Jenny seems to be getting it.

There’s a major crisis in the classroom. Mrs. Hanson can’t find the Scholastic Book Club money! That would have given me a heart attack when I was younger. Of course, everyone blames Elsie, and Mrs. Hanson keeps her after school to talk about it. But the next day, Mrs. Hanson confesses that she herself did wrong, leaving the envelope in the teachers lounge. Jenny thinks she owes Elsie an apology, but she doesn’t do it. Bitch.

Jenny gets a B- on her first test after Elsie starts tutoring her. Elsie gets an A. Jenny’s mom is so proud of them, she takes them out and buys them both a record. Elsie gets the Rolling Stones and Jenny gets Elton John, if you’re wondering.

One day Jenny and Elsie are both watching their younger siblings, so Jenny takes her brother, Kenny, over to Elsie’s. While Jenny and Elsie are playing checkers, Elsie’s sister and Kenny get into the graham crackers and make a mess. While Elsie is cleaning it up, her mother comes home, and she is PISSED at the mess. She smacks Elsie with the broom, and sends Jenny home.

Diane’s mother wants Elsie to tutor her, too, so they all three go over to Diane’s house that afternoon. At first Diane is a bit standoffish with Elsie, but as she begins to understand, she loosens up. So much so that she invites Elsie to her slumber party. Diane’s mom calls Elsie’s mom about it, and all Elsie’s mom cares about is her not eating. So Elsie will come after dinner, and leave before breakfast.

So the girls have a good time, and Elsie wins everyone over by giving them lavender sachets she made. Then she explains how she became overweight. Her parents fought all the time when she was younger, and when Elsie would get upset, her mom would tell her to get a cookie. So she just started eating whenever she was upset, and it snowballed from there. When Diane’s mom comes in, she picks up Elsie’s clothes from the floor, and sees all the safety pins Elsie uses to make the clothes fit. She offers to run them through her sewing machine real quick. But the next day, Elsie’s mom calls and yells at her, saying if she wants Elsie’s clothes altered, she’ll do it herself!

So, Jenny’s dad is a misogynistic douchebag. Her mom gets a job on Fridays and Saturdays. He’s all, who the hell’s going to cook dinner? She says she’ll make an extra casserole on Thursday, and Jenny can put it in on Friday. Then he can shop on Saturday morning, go to his bowling, and then cook dinner. Friday goes well, except for him waiting to be served, as usual. That’s gross. And then he doesn’t do anything on Saturday, except bowl. Jenny wants to go over to Diane’s house, and he tells her to take her brother with her. She wants to know what she’s supposed to do with him there, and he counters with what is he supposed to do with him? Take care of your kid, dickface! And then he gets all frustrated that night, and just makes them toasted cheese sandwiches.

The next Saturday, Jenny realizes she’s home with no adults while her dad’s at bowling. So she gets her brother set up with some wood, nails, and a hammer, tells him to go at it, and talks on the phone all afternoon. Good job, Jenny. The next weekend, she asks her friends over. Elsie has to bring her little sister. They soon all get bored, and Elsie tells them there’s a carnival in town at the shopping center, and she’ll share her tutoring money.

So, it’s a long walk to the shopping center, and they start to get tired. Diane decides they should hitch a ride, and flags down a truck. The driver says he’s going to end up at the shopping center. Elsie doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but the others talk her into it. They all get in the bed of the truck. But the truck drives for a really long time, going outside of town and obviously not to the shopping center. The girls start to get freaked out. Eventually there’s a light, and they jump out when the truck is stopped. But Elsie’s sister, Robyn, leaves her purse in the truck, jumps back in to get it, and it drives off with her in it.

The girls go to a nearby tavern, and the barman calls the police for them. Elsie is freaking the hell out, saying this will definitely do it, her mother will send her away for good. When the policeman gets there, he listens to their story, and then takes then all to the station, where he calls their parents. Most of the parents are mainly just happy to see their kids, but Mrs. Edwards is really pissed. I don’t blame her, I guess; her other daughter is missing, after all. But another officer soon shows up, with both Robyn and the truck driver. Robyn is fine, and the driver says he was just going to get a new horn for his truck, and then he’d be going to the shopping center. He thought they would enjoy the ride. Whatever, dude.

Elsie definitely is in big trouble, she’ll be leaving for boarding school summer camp in a month. Jenny asks her mom to try to talk to Elsie’s mom, to stop her from sending Elsie away. It doesn’t do any good, though. Then Jenny thinks to ask Mrs. Hanson. It takes some sweet-talking, but she agrees, she’ll do it the next week.

And that seems to work! Mrs. Hanson got Mrs. Edwards to agree that if the principal will admit her for the next year, she can stay. She just has to stay out of trouble for the last few weeks of school. She even gets to join in on recess again.

The girls decide to teach Elsie how to play softball at recess. She’s not very good to begin with, and the boys come over to make fun of her. She gets fed up, and quickly turns around, the bat accidentally goes flying, hitting one boy, Jack, in the mouth. Jenny begs him not to tell on Elsie before he’s led away.

Jenny calls Jack that night. He had to get six stitches, but he’s not a narc, so Elsie’s all good.

On the last day, they get their report cards. Jenny is happy to see that she ended up with a B in math. But Elsie is the happiest. Attached to her report card is a note from the principal, saying that she’s welcome back next year.

On the way home, Jenny asks Elsie why she’s been looking at her shoes a lot recently. Elsie says it’s because she can see them; she couldn’t before, because she was too fat. She says she was gross. Jenny says they were mean to her. Elsie says they were, but she was all mouth. That seems to sum it all up, and they run off to go swimming.

o   This is another book, like Bad Girls, where the kids get two recesses, one in the morning and another after lunch. I never had this, did anyone else? I can see it for little kids, but these were both fifth grades.

o   Ok, so I’m not really sure how I feel about this book. The take-away seems to be, lose weight and your life will get better! On the one hand, it does sound like Elsie was quite obese, so it is good that she lost some weight. But the way it’s gone about, and that the end result is good nonetheless, really bothers me.


  1. We only had one recess a day, too, right after lunch. Maybe it's a regional difference, I dunno.

    When I read this as a chubby fifth-grader, I didn't like that Elsie was every bad stereotype of a fat person. Sure, I didn't have an easy time, but I never stole anything! A good plot twist would have been having the culprit turn out to be a Claudia-like skinny girl buying junk food.

    1. That would have been a nice switch. But no. It's "let's pile all the shit on poor Elsie!"

  2. Prepare to be blown away...I used to have THREE recesses. It's the norm in the Seattle area, if not other places. We had 15 minutes mid-morning, half an hour after lunch, and 15 minutes mid-afternoon. In fifth or sixth grade we dropped down to just the half hour after lunch.

    Also, I recognized the cover of this book but the only bit of plot I could recall was Elsie being able to see her feet.

    1. You are correct. You just TOTALLY blew my mind. I'm glad I didn't know this was a real thing when I was little, or I would have lobbied for multiple recesses.

  3. Isabel EscalanteJuly 1, 2014 at 9:02 PM

    I teach at a private K-12 school. The junior high and high school students have one recess at 9:15 (45 minutes) and another one at 12:15 (30 minutes).

    1. Alright, what kind of backwards ass schools were my parents sending me to? I'm feeling all sorts of injustice for my smaller self.

  4. You should be bothered by how they go about getting Elsie to lose weight. The diet they have her on is basically a starvation diet, which works in the short term but no so much in the long term as after a bit on a starvation diet, the metabolism shuts down and the body begins trying to hold onto every calorie it can. I'm not saying Elsie doesn't need to lose weight but starvation diets are unhealthy at any size.

    1. Oh, I totally do. That's part of why I said I was upset in the way they went about it.

    2. Studies have proven that NO weight loss method works permanently for the fast majority of fat people.

      Elsie did not need to lose weight.

  5. It is not good that goddamn child was starved and beaten with a broom. Broth, carrot, and a pear - you think that is not starving the child?

    There is nothing wrong with being fat. Period.