As part of my internship I am continuously scouring short story collections by prominent authors, both to develop my sense of quality literature, aligning it with the founding editor at Narrative, and as part of a possible future project we have in the works.
Recently I read “Note to Sixth-Grade Self,” by Julie Orringer, in her collection How to Breathe Underwater. The story is a guide to her younger persona, describing how to maneuver the unfairness and cruelties in childhood. It is focused around events at school, and particularly a dance contest that Orringer’s sixth-grade self tries to win.
In one particular moment, however, the story moves beyond its narrow focus. There are a few sentences that resonate within a larger context, a spiritual one. The moment occurs at the beginning of the story, the younger self on her way to dance class with her classmates.
As you cross the street, take a look at the public high school. The kids there will be eating long sticks of Roman candy and leaning on the chain-link fence. Do they look as if they care who dances with whom, or what steps you’ll learn this week? News flash: They do not. Try to understand that there’s a world larger than the one you inhabit. If you understand that, you will be far ahead of Patricia and Cara.
For now, though, you live in this world, so go ahead and follow the others across the street to Miggie’s Academy of Dance (77-78).
For the sixth-grade self in this story, Miss Miggie’s dance contest was the significant event of her life. Winning it would mean temporary relief from the bullying and meanness from her classmates, a chance to feel accepted. But her older self realizes that in the long run of life, the contest matters very little. In fact it matters only in terms of her emotions and the way she handles the difficulties because it will set a precedent for other life battles. The contest has the chance either to help strengthen her, or to damage her.
Spiritually, it is the same. What we face now matters not in terms of the outcome of events, but in terms of how we deal with our emotions, how we treat others, and the significance of practicing the right way to live, practicing resilience.
This understanding, the same perspective that Orringer wants to give to her younger self, could make dealing with whatever troubles we face a little easier. God gives to us as we are able, but we are challenged, we are pushed. Because that is the only way to grow.
For now we live in this world, knowing that there is something else to come, but having to feel and handle the effects of this physical life. Orringer’s sixth-grade self did not win the dance contest, and overall her life at school did not change. But one boy offered a small hidden kindness, and this she accepted. Instead of focusing on the injustice of her treatment, she let it go, and focused on the joy.
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. John 15:19