Let me first start by saying this school year already surpasses last school year by one million percent. The boys come home happy every single day, even on homework days. The bus seems as if it might not result in my head exploding at some point during the year. I’ve already experienced a great conversation with our brand new superintendent.
I’m thrilled about this school year.
Fifth grade was a life-changing year for me for all sorts of reasons. Shoulder length, permed-but-brushed hair, crooked teeth for days, glasses I refused to wear because vanity, a red and black dress with a weird midriff that I wore non-stop; my fifth grade school picture only tells part of the story.
I loved my teacher that year. I visited her about once a nine weeks every year through my high school graduation. She loved me despite my inability to stop talking. Ever. The first teacher to tell my parents during a conference that I talked too much in class, my parents responded, “Wow! You really have our daughter in your class unlike those past teachers!” My parents always had jokes.
Some of my best elementary school friends were in class with me. One would move away in high school. One would become my high school into college boyfriend. But at the start of fifth grade, we were just a bunch of friends in a classroom with a teacher who seemed to genuinely care about us.
Things started to feel weird for me in the middle of the year. My emotions started to get a little wonky. I got my first zits. I legit filled out the training bra I made my mom purchase for me the previous year.
And then it happened: I started my period right when I turned 11 years old. In fifth grade.
The discussion around girls and menstruation looked very different in 1990. My parents hadn’t purchased me a series of books that grew with me to help me understand puberty. (See below.) I knew what a period was, but no one really warned me that it would show up soon and that it would change how I viewed myself on many levels.
I was deeply embarrassed to be the first of my friends to start her period. Deeply embarrassed. I didn’t tell my mother for the first two months. I also wasn’t one of those lucky ones who has light, irregular periods for the first few years. I went straight to heavy, painful flow. I bled through everything, all the time. I continued that until my ablation in 2012.
I refused to change my pad at school. What if someone heard me opening the wrapper? And for that matter, why are the wrappers on menstrual products so noisy? Why hasn’t someone fixed that yet? I began to wear black pants in hopes no one would see when my pad leaked onto my pants. I constantly felt afraid to stand up from my seat, especially if I found myself sitting on a yellow chair instead of a brown chair.
This fear followed me through high school. Despite always carrying products with me, my period liked to show up at surprising times. Sometimes at 17 days into a cycle. Sometimes at 42. I’d be sitting in class, and suddenly, without warning, it would start with a vengeance. I’d have to go to the restroom immediately or risk bleeding everywhere. I often times ended up in the nurse’s office at some point during the same day as the cramps would set in about an hour or two later, leaving me vomiting in the toilet.
So when the fifth grade rules came home this year with our oldest son, and I saw that the consequence for using the restroom during non-scheduled restroom breaks was losing recess, my heart broke.
I’m not the first fifth grade, ten or eleven year old girl to start her period. Starting your period that early puts you at an elevated risk for developing breast cancer, and more girls are starting their periods early. Where the national average used to hover around the 14-15 mark, it’s now 12.
It’s not unlikely that at least one girl in fifth grade at my sons’ school will start her period this year, if she hasn’t already. And thinking of her sitting there trying to decide between the embarrassment of dealing with menstrual products in the elementary school bathroom she shares with kids as young as five (or, in our wing, seven), losing recess, or all of her peers finding out she started her period because she bled through her underwear simply breaks me. I don’t believe in losing recess as a punishment in the first place, but to punish girls in this manner brings extra shame to the process of puberty and menstruation—and that shame can stick with you for decades.
No, I’m not a parent of a daughter in fifth grade right now, but I still care about the emotional and physical well-being of girls. I wouldn’t have put up with such a rule for their sister, and I don’t feel like our fifth grade girls* should spend the year in fear.
* = or boys. No one should be afraid to ask to use the restroom. Ever.