Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You By Barthe DeClements

But what will it take to get herself out of trouble when she’s been in it so long?

Barthe DeClements introduced Elsie Edwards as the class fatty-pariah in Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade, and followed her development into an insecure high schooler in How Do I Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? and her hard-won blossoming into a self-confident young woman in Seventeen and In-Between; by that point Elsie had become one of my all-time favorite YA heroines.

The Plot: Elsie only makes a brief appearance in this story (which was actually published after Ninth Grade Blues) but DeClements gives us another young heroine struggling to define herself beyond a big problem.

Helen Nicholas has earned the nickname of “Bad Helen” by the time she starts 6th grade with her BFF Louise, and familiar characters such as Jack Hanson, Diane Gates, Jenny Sawyer, and Sharon Hinkler (still up in everybody’s business, not yet having joined a cult). Rambunctious and prank-obsessed, Helen has also earned the nickname because of her poor grades in reading and spelling: she’s dyslexic, but her well-meaning-but-misguided mother has refused to get her special help for fear that she’ll be labeled “retarded”.  Helen has been barely passing each year by making up for the bad grades by getting As in math, music and art.

On the first day of 6th grade, Helen is disappointed when Louise, Jenny, Diane and Elsie are assigned to hip young Mr. Marshall’s room, while she will be spending the year with Mrs. Lobb. Helen can’t resist  running thread between her’s and a neighboring desk during Mrs. Lobb’s read-aloud of Old Yeller, but when her teacher trips over it, the class fills her in on Helen’s bad reputation:

“Is this the way you usually start out the school year?”

“You bet.” Jimmy’s voice drifted from the back of the classroom.

Resolving to do better, Helen writes Mrs. Lobb a note of apology, and the teacher, regarding Helen’s poor spelling, instantly has an idea about what’s up, but when she calls Mrs. Nichols to talk about making arrangements to get Helen extra help, she is shut down the minute she says “special education.”

Meanwhile, Helen’s struggles keep her head above water in English is agonizing- clearly very bright, she has worked out a complex series of systems to fend off teasing. When Mrs. Lobb assigns the class parts of a play to read aloud, Helen has a plan!

What was neat about the day was if I read my part smoothly, then, later, if we had to read aloud and I hadn’t had time to practice, it might sound like I got mixed up by mistake. I could sort of laugh and go over the paragraph again like kids do when they goof up.

But unfortunately, Mrs. Lobb reshuffles the parts when they get a new student, and another is absent. Jack surreptitiously tries to prompt Helen through the reading, but humiliated, she lashes out by putting toothpaste on Mrs. Lobb’s chair- when the teacher notices the mess on her skirt, she leaves Sharon in charge to run to the bathroom, and the room is teacherless when the principal drops by, leading to Mrs. Lobb being reprimanded in front of her class and Sharon smugger than ever (“I heard my mother say that teachers aren’t supposed to leave their classes unattended.”)

DeClemnents is clearly sympathetic to both Helen, who works hard to try and gain some ground in English, and Mrs. Lobb, who has her hands full in an overstuffed classroom and is generous in her praise for what Helen does well. However, Helen’s mother stubbornly refuses to admit that Helen has a learning disability, while Helen herself seems resigned to the fact that there is nothing she can do but get good grades in the subjects that she can master:

Most kids just tell each other, “Helen’s dumb,” and go on with their work.

Helen also has support in the form of her rich Uncle Leo, who rolls into town on her birthday to take her to lunch and get her ears pierced (against her mother’s wishes) and offer her some advice:

“I used to say to myself, ‘All she can do is kill me.’ That used to make me real brave and I’d walk right in the house saying to myself, ‘She can only kill me.’”

I tried it with a little shrug. “Sixth grade can only kill me.”

Unfortunately, cool Uncle Leo had also presented Helen with a gift of fireworks from the local Indian Reservation, and when she sets one off during the 6th grade social studies Mexican Folk Festival, it’s the last straw for Mrs. Lobb and the principal:

She plunked me down in an office chair and announced to Mr. Douglas in a loud voice that she’d about had it with me. Mr. Douglas said he’d about had it with all the sixth-graders.

Helen sits in the office for the rest of the day, and Mr. Douglas ignores her attempt to apologize, explain and wish him a Merry Christmas. When her report card comes at the beginning of the holiday break it’s bad, and Helen goes all-in on her Bad Helen persona and spray-paints SCHOOL MAKES ME PUKE on the side of the building; when Mr. Douglas comes around with a stern lecture on taxpayer dollars and demanding a handwriting sample from every kid in school, Helen hastily corrects the spelling of “puke” to avoid detection.

This coincides with Helen’s father finally putting his foot down and insisting that Helen be allowed to get special help; although Helen’s mother also scores a victory by getting her transferred to Mr. Marshall’s class, still insistent that Mrs. Lobb is the real problem.

Upset by the fact that she wasted taxpayer dollars, Helen seeks out the custodian to find out how much in labor and materials it will cost to paint over the graffiti (30 seconds and six dollars in paint) and asks her Dad for extra chores to earn money to pay back the school.

But Helen starts to make real progress with the reading teacher in the resources room, even with Sharon giving her shit about being “retarded”:

“My mother said,” Sharon interrupted loudly, “that it was a crime the school didn’t transfer you to a remedial room years ago and your parents should sue the school.”

Unfortunately, this where the book sort of trails off. At the end of the school year, the sixth grades traditionally spend a week at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. In the hasty conclusion, Helen and Diane get caught sneaking around in the middle of the night, intending to throw another firecracker into the boys’ tent, but are caught by Mr. Marshall, who lets them come up with their own punishment. Helen concludes:

We were both perfect angels for the rest of the week. In fact, I was perfect for the rest of the semester in Mr. Marshall’s class. I didn’t even shoot off my third firecracker on the last day of sixth grade.

I saved it for junior high.

Cover Art Department: I just have to point out the blonde girl’s (Marianne?) perfectly accurate-for-1985 Junior Girl Scout uniform. Good job, illustrator.

Author’s Note Department: The book includes an excerpt from an interview with DeClements (who will turn 99 this year!) talking about her own problems in grade school with learning to read music, and her experience as a school psychologist with parents and teachers resistant to special education classes and “labeling” students with learning disabilities.

Sign It Was Written In 1985 Department:  Helen and Louise debate the hunkiness of David Lee Roth versus Eddie Van Halen.

When the special ed teacher has the students list their personal heroes and the traits they admire in them, Helen lists Mary Lou Retton because she’s “good in sports.”

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3 Responses to Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You By Barthe DeClements

  1. Julie says:

    Loved the review! The Elsie books are my favorite, of course, but I do have a soft spot for Bad Helen. She makes a cameo appearance in Seventeen & Inbetween, IIRC!

  2. RSR says:

    I read this before the Elsie books and, learning disability aside, I always thought Helen had it pretty good: smart, athletic, popular enough not to need Sharon to round out her sweet roller skating party, and much nicer parents

    • mondomolly says:

      It’s true, she definitely drew an easier homelife than Elsie or even Jenny- also her parents are pretty well-off, plus Rich Uncle Leo. While her mother is single-minded about not putting her in a special ed class, she is clearly doing it out of love, even if she is misinformed.

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