I liked this book a little better than Nothing’s Fair in the Fifth Grade. I think it mostly has to do with the protagonists. In Nothing’s Fair, Jenny Sawyer was a little bland. But in this book Helen Nichols is AWESOME. Her nickname is Bad Helen, right?
The book starts on Helen’s first day of sixth grade. Her mom wants her to wear a skirt, not those “denim pants.” It’s OK Helen’s mom, you can use the word “jeans.” Her mom also wants Helen to wear her hair differently to show off her Liza Minelli eyes. Heh…..that’s Lucille Montero to those of us in the under-50 crowd!
Helen hates school. She’s very very VERY bad at reading and spelling, which is obvs to us readers right at the get go to be the reason behind her behavioral issues. Anyway, Helen ends up in Mrs. Lobb’s class, while her BFF Louise gets Mr. Marshall, who is the cool teacher all the kids want. First day of school, Helen winds thread between the leg of her desk and her neighbor’s desk and makes a sign saying “betour.” What’s a betour her neighbor asks, and Helen is embarrassed that she got caught not being able to spell. How is she supposed to remember which way a B and a D face? Mrs. Lobb trips over the betour which is pretty funny. I love Helen, that is the type of thing I always thought about doing as a kid, but was scared shitless to try. At one point, she also puts toothpaste on Lobb’s chair and hid an alarm clock, set to go off at reading time, in the trash can. Awesome.
After school, Helen heads straight home to work with her mom on memorizing all her reading for the next day. It’s so sad, she does homework til 10:00, which is WAY too much time on schoolwork in my opinion. But her mom is convinced that all this work will help Helen become a better reader. (Not true, my 2-year old already has a few of his books memorized, but I don’t fool myself into thinking he can actually read them!). The next day Mrs. Lobb makes Helen read from a different part of the story and the whole class gets to hear her stumble over words like ‘scene’ and ‘expensive’ and ‘quaint.’ I’m so sad for Helen.
Helen spends the weekend with her friend Louise, who comes from a large family. Louise’s brother takes them to the carnival and gives her five bucks for her birthday. Which evidently in 1985 (when this was published) can buy a “wad of tickets.” I wish that were true now! My poor son only got to ride two rides this year at the fair because of the ridiculousness of carnival prices 😡 Anyway, Louise has a great family, and at one point her brother says to their mom “school makes me puke,” which really strikes a cord with Helen.
Back at school, we near the end of the quarter and Mrs. Lobb lets the students know that their exams are going to account for the majority of their grades. People are angry because that means the get little to no credit for their homework. It’s especially bad for Helen, who counts on her homework to raise her terrible test grades so she can pass. Helen tells her parents about this, and we learn that there is a disconnect between her mom and dad about Helen’s reading problems. Dad wants to let the school take care of it and mom says no way to having a daughter in special ed and she will keep working with Helen at home. At the end of quarter tests, Helen unsurprisingly does terribly on her reading and social studies. She kicks some ass in math though, so she is confident on that one. Unfortunately Leon tries to cheat off her and Mrs. Lobb gives them both a zero. Her report card lands her in a parent/teacher/student/principal conference (sounds like a premise for a really bad porn!) to discuss Helen’s difficulties. Mrs. Lobb and Helen’s mom don’t quite see eye to eye. The principal uses the term “LD” to describe Helen, which her dad later tells her stands for Learning Disabled. Mom is vehemently opposed to special ed because Helen has tested very high in IQ.
Helen comes down with a wicked stomach bug and misses several days of school. Eventually she feels better and her mom lets her take one more day off school to spend with her Uncle Leo, who is in town for a short time. Uncle Leo is very sympathetic to Helen’s school difficulties and tells her that when he was in trouble, he used to make himself feel better by saying it “can only kill me.” So Helen thinks “sixth grade can only kill me,” and feels better.
Helen takes a firecracker to school. Because that can only end well, right? She sets off a chaser and it heads right to the teachers! And guess who is still holding the matches??? Hey even a girl with a high IQ like my Helen can make mistakes, right? Helen gets a big fat discipline slip and gets grounded for the start of christmas break.
Back at school after Christmas is more of the same…failing. After another abyssmal report card, Helen spray paints the school, writing “School makes me puke,” only she writes it “School mak me puk.” Poor Helen. The next day, Helen is transferred to Mr. Marshall’s room after her mom calls the principal. The principal visits each class, asking the students to write school makes me puke on a paper. Helen cheats and realizes her spelling errors. But she is feeling guilty when the principal lectures them about school pride and taxpayer money, etc.
Helen’s mom leaves for a week to visit sick grandma. So Helen is home with her dad for the whole week. Helen asks to earn some money to pay back the school for the cost of the paint to cover up her artwork, and she tells her dad what she did. Her dad is mad, but realizes that he can use this opportunity to go over Helen’s mom’s head and enroll Helen in special ed. So Helen goes and is very happy with her decision. She is afriad of being called a retard, but most of her friends are like “um, yeah, I noticed you had trouble reading,” and drop it at that. Nice friends!
Mom is pissed! Still, you can’t argue with results. At one point after Helen does a good job reading out loud, her mom says sadly “You know Helen, I really thought I could teach you.” As much as I couldn’t stand her mom for most of this book, that really kind of broke my heart. It’s like she just realized that she had been failing her daughter by trying to help her. But without having to help Helen every night she is feeling extraneous. So dad asks her to come help out at his office. And she feels placated.
At the end of the year, the sixth grade spends a week at outdoor school (I did too in 6th Grade! Good old Camp Greentop!). Helen, who has been on perfect behavior for her new teacher, Mr. Marshall, can’t help but bring her last firecracker. She gets caught with it (before setting it off) and feels, really for the first time, bad about her bad behavior. She cries to Mr. Marshall, who lets her off pretty easy with KP. aaaaaand….the end.
- I’m not sure what it is about these 1980’s books, but mom working is like a BFD. This one, Nothing’s Fair and With You and Without You all had some sort of conflict around mom working, or needing to work or not staying home with the kids. Does this actually ring true? I dunno, I was only 3-13 in the 80’s, but that seems more like a 1950’s worry.
- When the girls go to the skating rink for Helen’s birthday, Louise talks about the the cute blond guy in the half-shirt. yeah, dudes in half shirts are HAWT!
- This kind of bothers me. This book takes place in 1985 and follows 12 year olds, so they would have been born in 1973. But they all (or mostly) have baby-boomer type names. Helen, Louise, Sharon, Diane, and Louise’s little sister Carole. These should be the names of these girl’s parents! Let me tell you, if I wrote a book in ten years and gave the 12 year old protagonists names like Jennifer, Michelle, Amy or Lisa it would be weird to the girls reading it who would all be named Taylor or Brittany or Jordyn. They would be thinking “Hey, my mom’s name is Jennifer!”
- I really like this book! I’m glad I re-read it. I think I’ll read more Barthe DeClements, especially Double Trouble and No Place for Me!