Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Fifth Grade

I knew the page number of every sex scene in Judy Blume’s book “Forever”. I was like an X-Man in the fifth grade and this was my mutant power. I knew the page numbers of sex scenes in all sorts of books: “Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No”, a pop psychology book at the time, was one of my favorites. “Candy” by Terry Southern, another quality sex book for me in fifth grade. “Boys and Girls Together” (by William Goldman), “Couples” (by Updike), “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”, “Wifey” (also by Judy Blume) and so on.


I’d see people reading “Forever” and I’d say , “go to page 121” and sure enough, there it was. Penetration.

In the book, “Candy” it was all over the place. She was stupid and having sex with everyone. It was a perfect book for a fifth grader. “Wifey” scared me but I couldn’t quite figure out why until thirty years later. But that didn’t stop me from reading it over and over. Just the cover: a picture of the area in a woman between the breasts and the waist with just the hint of everything. That was a “wifey”. I wanted one. Maybe two.

One time Lori Gumbinger wanted to stop thinking about Brian Fox. So I told her a technique from “Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No”:

Everytime you think of him whisper “no” in your mind. Then if you still think about him whisper “NO” a little louder, but still in your mind. Eventually, if you keep thinking about him, whisper “no” but this time out loud. The more you think about him, the more you say “no” louder and louder until eventually you are screaming “NO!”

Eventually you will stop thinking about him.

That was the technique in the book.

I still occasionally use it.

From “Harriet the Spy” (and the sequel, “The Long Secret”) I learned how to be a spy. I’d take my notebook into school and I’d write down my thoughts on everyone. If X had a crush on Y I’d write it down and write down why I thought it.

I filled up the whole notebook about everyone in the class. Eventually everyone was grabbing at my notebook to see what I had written so the teacher, Miss Hilge, banned me from bringing in the notebook anymore. I still write in my notebook every day about all the people around me and who they like and don’t like.

From “Chloris and the Creeps” I learned that divorce was bad for kids. And that kids would take advantage of divorce by getting gifts from both sides and making both sides feel guilty. When I read that, and the sequel, I wanted my parents to get divorced so I would get two allowances. And now that I’m divorced, I try not to let my kids game me like Chloris gamed her parents.

In fifth grade we had sex education classes from Mrs. Robison. I learned that making a circle with the fingers of one hand and putting one finger from the other hand through that circle was all that was needed to send me to the principal’s office.

I learned about prayer in fifth grade. I got down on my knees and leaned against my bed with the lights out and prayed that Beth Wesloh would have her desk moved next to mine. The next day her desk was moved right next to mine. So I believed ever since that prayer would work. And it still occasionally does.

This was all about 34 years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. I learned how cruel kids can sometimes be, even hitting me for no other reason than that they thought it was funny. I learned how much more complicated relationships could be, particularly when sex is involved. I stopped referring to Judy Blume for all of my knowledge about sex. I graduated from pop psychology to…well, more pop psychology. It’s all pop. Easy answers are the best answers.

In fifth grade I licked my first taste of romance. My first flirtation with intrigue. I was friends with girls for the first time. I started writing every day. I had my first fight where blood was shed (out of my nose) and girls were screaming. My first close relative died and I had no idea how to act . I didn’t understand why I had to say “sorry” to someone whose wife died. I didn’t do it!

I had my first breakup (she said, “I never want to talk to you again” – and now, remarkably, we’re friends). I cried that night thinking I would never ride bicycles again with her.

I read as many of the books on my parents bookshelves as I could. I remember the bindings of the books and how books 30 or 40 years ago had thinner pages and print that was much tighter together so as to keep the page numbers low. Sometimes when I see a book like that it brings a feeling of nostalgia. And also a nostalgic erection, as often happened back then when reading the books on my parent’s shelves.

The main thing I learned was that “Forever” often means the exact opposite. And that “Candy” is usually too sweet. And that “Boys and Girls Together” often means that they are not. And for many years I too often said “Yes” when I really meant “No”. Or that I manipulated people into saying “Yes” to me when I knew they wanted to say “No”.

Between fifth grade and now I have many many regrets. And regrets cost money and soul but I wouldn’t take anything back. I’m thankful now for every regret I’ve ever had. But sometimes I feel like I’m still back in fifth grade. And for the rest of my life I’ll be a spy.

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  • http://www.unmappedcountry.blogspot.com/ Hope

    poignant post. 
    sometimes i worry there aren’t enough interesting books on my shelf for my kids. 
    but there are. 
    although i don’t know what happened to “the joy of sex.”

  • C. Martin

    Great story! Your great writing vividly brings back memories of my elementary and middle school crushes…and that’s scary stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/ClaudiaYoga Claudia Azula

    Very cute, cannot but picture you learning all of these things.  Sweet!  Loved the post.

  • Rohit Gupta

    That is one of the most amazing post of yours I have ever read. It brings a smile on my face.
    Having just crossed my teenage certainly helps!

  • http://cayesimpoo.blogspot.com/ Caye

    Thank you for your posts James. They keep me going. 

  • http://twitter.com/PMBenfield PRISCILLA BENFIELD

    Very sweet. You brought me back to that fifth grader who discovered a lot thanks to the books I was exposed to.

  • Anonymous

    I never knew of “Boys and Girls Together,” but all the other books you mentioned got passed around, dog-eared, marked-up, traded like contraband between people who didn’t even know each other or didn’t typically associate within the same social circles, because the resource was so in-demand and seen as so necessary that kids made a cooperative effort to share and distribute those books.

  • http://www.signup.SurviveProgress.com/ Collin

    We’re all just humans being human.

  • tims

    for me it was “Every Womans Standard Medical Guide” (circa 1948)   

    http://books.google.com/books/about/Every_woman_s_standard_medical_guide.html?id=1xOXOwAACAAJ

    a bit dry and clinical…

  • Silvia So

    Hi James. I really love how you pin your soul to the (virtual) page. Thanks for doing so.

  • caroline

    And what you learned had nothing to do with academic curricula!  

    • http://profiles.google.com/raveeshbhalla90 Raveesh Bhalla

      Someone told me this quote once which I really love, for I needed it at the time:

      “Don’t let your studies come in the way of your education”

      • caroline

         “I never let my schooling interfere with my education” – Mark Twain

      • caroline

        “I never let schooling get in the way of my education” – Mark Twain

  • sarfarosh

    our kids will have no list of books in this ‘too much information’ era.
    on positive side, i hope they go to the end of every thing and every addiction in shortest period.

  • Anonymous

    A “nostalgic erection” – –  LOL. I swear to G-d something you write hits me between the eyes about every other post, James. I may have had a few of those myself though (JC Penney’s catalogs, bra and panty section – painful yet poignant memories).

    This is why Generation X is so unique (we were born only a few days apart).  We’ve got pre-digital experiences and the added perspective of watching the digital world unfold. The digital  technology revolution is fundamentally changing the way humans interact, our perceptions of the world and our cultures to a degree that nothing else has since perhaps the first agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. We got to see that transformation up close and personal, so to speak. Considering the long train of history, this is certainly an anomalous era. A 23 year old reading this post today won’t even be able to relate to this experience. It’ll just be puzzled expressions and a shoulder shrug.

  • http://twitter.com/fzeng96 Feng

    I am convinced. Inside each of us there is a horny spy.

  • Guest

    Hi James, can you say a little more on being “thankful now for every regret”… that resonates with me but I can’t put my finger on why.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=734104183 Robert Torres

    I thought I could use “astral projection” to fly to the girl’s houses I had crushes on,…..I thought I was strange. Now I know it was a just a fantasy thing any kid could have. Cool post James. My sister had the Looking for Mr. Goodbar novel,….I think I stole it.

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  • Freevolve

    Nietzsche’s keystone concept, the “eternal yes”: If you assent “Yes” to *any* element in your life right now, you must then say “yes” to all the crap that has made up your life, to even bring you to that present “yes.”  You can’t have it both ways: a “yes” now, means a “yes” backwards, through every last rotten bit of it.  Even if the current “yes” is the moments of joy provided by a snatched guilt-inducing donut on the way to your crummy job… all the traumas of your life are vindicated, exalted, paid-off, by that simple joy….

  • Andrew_ferri

    Soul is the ultimate price. And I’m glad you are putting more pictures of sexy brunettes in your blog.

  • http://www.brookefarmer.com/ Brooke Farmer

    In fifth grade a boy I really liked “asked me out.” 

    I was excited and happy about it until I told my best friend that he asked. She laughed and started making fun of him. 

    So I lied and told her I would never go out with him. 

    I stayed home “sick” for two days after calling him that night and telling him I didn’t like him even though I did. (I guess I was saying “no” when I really meant “yes.”) 

    I still feel bad about it. And I have tried very hard ever since not to let other people influence who I do and don’t like. Sometimes it’s hard. You think about how someone would be viewed by friends and family and whether or not they would approve. It might be part of the reason I hate introducing new dating prospects to my inner circle of family and friends. I want a lot of time for my own opinions and emotions to form. And, if things start to call apart a little bit, I want to form my own opinions about that too. 

  • http://www.brookefarmer.com/ Brooke_Farmer

    In fifth grade a boy I really liked “asked me out.” 

    I was excited and happy about it until I told my best friend that he asked. She laughed and started making fun of him. 

    So I lied and told her I would never go out with him. 

    I stayed home “sick” for two days after calling him that night and telling him I didn’t like him even though I did. (I guess I was saying “no” when I really meant “yes.”) 

    I still feel bad about it. And I have tried very hard ever since not to let other people influence who I do and don’t like. Sometimes it’s hard. You think about how someone would be viewed by friends and family and whether or not they would approve. It might be part of the reason I hate introducing new dating prospects to my inner circle of family and friends. I want a lot of time for my own opinions and emotions to form. And, if things start to call apart a little bit, I want to form my own opinions about that too. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OOF7L3LZII37P2F4OQS7INHHZ4 Crusader79

    Did your parents attempt the infamous “birds and bees” talk with you? For many people that’s one of life’s comedy classics :-)

  • http://exuberantbodhisattva.blogspot.com/ Erica Schmidt

    Oh wow.  I love this post.  Love Judy Blume.  I actually just read Forever on New Year’s Day of this year.  No wonder I have been such a late bloomer.  It was from Judy Blume’s “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t,” that I learned what an erection was.  And I had to reread it three times before I really figured it out.  Wishing you and all of your reader’s many happy nostalgic erections.  You’re on fire, these days, James.  Perhaps it’s India.  All the best, Erica.

  • http://jacxu.com/ Jac Xu

    Why the heck the all the sex education classes teachers are all called Ms. Robison.  By the way nice Disqus platform. 

  • http://twitter.com/EntreprenKorner EntrepreneursKorner

    Awesome post James: 

    Check Out Boostrapping Business: 

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    when you can.

  • Anonymous

    “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was my favourite Judy Blume book. I recently reconnected with the first boy who ever asked me out (P.F. in Grade 7). I was quite emotional after that meeting as it had me thinking back to that time and how very innocent and wonderful all our personalities were in childhood, (before the hideous teen years, high school, life, etc.) I was truer to myself then and I want to get back to that. Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      THat was a great book. For me maybe it was “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”. She’s amazing how she tuned into that 4th thru 8th grade psyche so well. I have a daughter who is about to turn 13 and I’m scared. 

  • Anna

    This was fun, thanks.

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