- The Magic Show
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Ashley Devine hands me an invitation for her birthday party, a Friday-night sleepover. your invited, it reads in a cartoonish font. The missing apostrophe bothers me. At eleven years old, I am big on following all rules: it is the hallmark of my personality, in fact. Ashley has no such desire, at least as far as I can tell. She has the demeanor of a stoned skater kid, though no one in our grade actually does drugs. She wears skater T-shirts and wide-legged JNCO jeans, swaggering a little when she walks, like a guy. She’s about a foot taller than I am. Ashley won’t ever become middle school royalty, but she’s liked well enough, doesn’t seem too concerned. She passes out her invitations in an uncalculated way, handing them to whomever she feels like. “It’ll be awesome,” she says confidently. “You should come.” [End Page 71]
We don’t know it yet, but this is the last year of group sleepovers. These overnight parties will get cattier and cattier over the course of the next few months, the usual activities replaced by more adolescent ones. Freezing each other’s bras, for example, or lurid instant-messaging sessions with boys. Eventually, birthday sleepovers will be replaced by coed dance parties at the community center, where everyone picks over pizza and listens to rap music but refuses to dance. Sixth grade is the last year before people start hating one another, before everyone gets sized up and put in their place. A year from now, about two-thirds of the new friends I’ve made will be tired of having me as a mascot, and they will eventually stop speaking to me altogether.
For now, though, it’s still the beginning, and we are all still relatively unknown to one another, having recently arrived from different elementary schools. We drift through the middle school building, the windowless classrooms and tiled ceilings making it feel like a terrarium. Our grade is divided into academic “teams,” groups of about eighty kids that all have animal names: the Gators, the Bears, the Lions. Our team is called the Sea Stars, a nerdy choice that almost seems to predispose some of us to a poetic daydreaminess.
The Sea Star teachers are straight-up weird. Mrs. Williams, who teaches us language arts, keeps an extensive collection of Happy Meal toys on the ledge behind her classroom desk, despite the fact that she’s fifty years old. Ms. Foust, the youngest and least remarkable of the team teachers, can’t seem to explain any of the math she is teaching us. I also have her for social studies for this term rotation, where she struggles to pronounce Czechoslovakia. “That’s not even a country anymore,” my sister says with disdain. “It’s the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.” My sister is a too-smart senior in high school, full of bravado, and my textbook is a bit dated.
But then there is our science teacher, Mrs. Yates, a lanky grandma type with huge bifocals. She’s my favorite. She lets us perform dissections even though we’re only sixth graders, even though it isn’t part of the required curriculum and won’t be on the state test at the end of the year. On dissection days, I help her prepare the equipment in the classroom’s back office, dipping the Styrofoam trays into a solution of water and bleach. On one wall of the office, there are shelves filled with large specimen jars: plants, insects, and even a few animal embryos floating in strange, red-orange fluid: like blood but more fluorescent. There’s [End Page 72] something that’s both primordial and highly unnatural about the jars, and I’m fascinated for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Everyone gets grossed out during the dissections, but it’s still the most exciting thing anyone lets us do at school. Even with our required lab reports, Mrs. Yates has a way of making these days into something of a party. After...