|Ariana's photo not available, please paint a beautiful picture in your mind instead.|
For those of you who weren't around for the olden times, there used to be this way of communicating with other humans called "writing letters" where you would put words on a piece of paper, put a stamp on it, and it rode in a jeep and a train and an airplane to be deposited in the box that today is commonly used for bills and birthday cards from your grandma (who had to mail it because you don't come see her often enough).
The year I was in 6th grade, stamps made the jump from 22 cents to a quarter, and boy did all Hell break loose over that. Three cent stamps were a hot commodity for quite a while to prevent having to use TWO 22 cent stamps and running the risk of "overpaying" the USPS for their services, which was worse than blasphemy around these parts.
Our teacher was retired from the US Army and he let us know every.single.day. First, by wearing short sleeve shirts and refusing to cover the faded and blurry green ink of his "service tat" on his forearm, and secondly by making us do calisthenics on the grass outside our classroom door.
Burpees in wet grass first thing in the morning has somehow not ever been my strongpoint.
Pantyhose were a thing. For 6th grade girls. You know, before they were merely "fat strangulation appliances", they were...socks. Have you ever tried to do a squat-thrust in a skirt and pantyhose? Try it, I'll wait....
|So much WTF going on in this picture. The only one I have, courtesy of Chris Oglesby, who I'm sure only "accidentally" cropped Kari Harris out. Me and Chanda Smith rocking our pantyhose. Mr. Rooper, badassest teacher ever.|
Anyhoo. Sixth Grade taught us a lot. We learned about the gunk that builds up in a smoker's lungs, thanks to an unprepared presenter who had his whole setup but...not a cigarette...and Mr. Rooper who let me run home 4 houses to get some from my parents' stash, an inordinate number of cartons obtained on any number of stops on an Indian reservation to or from a visit with relatives.
We learned how to measure a tree's height using a tape measure and a shadow and how to survive in the wilderness.
We learned the most about the importance of Veteran's Day that year when our teacher's tough exterior cracked and faded away with his tears as he addressed the whole school.
I learned that my heinous haircut (and perm) from 5th grade would grow out, even if it was a permullet that year. There was hope.
I learned of the dark hearts beating in those who would harm our children in the place they should feel safest when a new student shared the terrors she and her siblings had survived in the school in the town where they lived before.
We learned about the world around us, which is where Ariana Martini comes in.
Until then, my view of the world beyond our borders was fed by Dan Rather. Dinners were often in front of the TV, and it was a blur of somber and shocking events until we heard his signature "That's part of our world tonight" sign off. Libya, Beirut, Iran, Russia. It sounded as if everywhere but the US was terrible, and the only clips worth showing were sandy, dirty, bloody. Fighting. Yelling. If the people were brown, they were angry. They wanted to kill each other. They wanted to kill everyone in their neighboring countries. They wanted to kill Americans. Local news was peppered with grim tales of the Green River Killer. There were never any positive messages coming through the boob tube at dinner time.
Dinner: The evening meal best served saturated in depression sauce with a side of anxiety from your favorite news anchor.
So when we were each assigned a pen pal from a school in another country, my eyes were opened to the possibility that we needed to learn and explore these places outside the 6 o'clock news. I will readily admit I was a shitty pen pal. I think I just felt like the person on the other end was so much more interesting, had such a better idea at how she fit into the world than I did, after getting her letters I was simply left with nothing to say. I probably wrote something stupid like asking her if her toilet flushed backward.
First of all, Ariana Martini. Her name, even. Hello. It's a grown-up glamour beverage. With a special glass and all. I went into this encounter fully believing that Australia was truly just covered in red dirt, koalas, and kangaroos, surrounded by an ocean full of great white sharks and crocodiles. We had not yet traveled with Nemo and Marlin and Dory to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney and the dental office of P. Sherman. Her words chipped away at my ignorance while forcing me to acknowledge it.
She sent carefully taped coins so I could see what their currency looked like. She sent a picture of herself, a picture of her family's car, one she was currently upset over her father deciding to sell because all her siblings couldn't fit in and it was no longer practical. It was a Corvette, black and silver, and it looked like a shark, its shiny underbelly eager to consume its prey. It was just like one I've seen the last month or so parked on the street on my way to work, which is what's been making me think of her as of late and the sneaky way her very brief presence has influenced my life.
|She was automatically the coolest person I'd ever known.|
How did they have an American car? I was flabbergasted. I thought the only people in foreign countries with American cars were American servicemen who had their Mustangs and their Camaros and their Made in the US of A pick-em-up trucks shipped to them because they refused to drive some "RiceBurner" or "Nazi-KrautWagon" while they were protecting us from the Ruskies in a far away land.
She poured out about her life and her surroundings, carefully explaining that her favorite actress turned new pop star, Kylie Minogue, was as popular there as Madonna was here. She wrote with intelligence about the things outside of her country in a way that I wasn't used to. I secretly wished I had an updated set of encyclopedias at home.
Encyclopedia: Again, for you newcomers, it was Google version 1.0. There were about 38 volumes arranged alphabetically to instantly access information that was at least up to date at time of printing. They were also useful for pressing flowers and hiding money. Mine had their own special rack, even. You could basically decorate your room around where you were deciding to place your encyclopedia shelves.
I held onto her writings for a long time like love letters. Her words inspiring me to look beyond myself, beyond my comfort zone, to learn more than Dan Rather was offering.
It's a big reason I don't allow my children to watch the news. Ever. I want them to know more than the bits of filtered information, sensationalized to sell ad minutes. I want them to know about Malala Yousafzai and her amazing life as much as I want them to know about the Taliban and their awful manners. We talked about the Dalai Lama a little over a week ago on his birthday and Clayton only had to be corrected four times when he referred to him as "The Llama Man".
Kids are curious. They WANT to know about other places, other cultures, other kids like them that may not speak the same language but who feel the same feelings. We watch documentaries like On the Way to School so they can see that education is SO important to those in other countries that they're willing to endure an unbelievably difficult journey just to get there.
|It's streaming on Netflix. Go watch it right now.|
And so, Ariana Martini, wherever you are in this world today, I thank you. For inspiring me as a 6th grader to open her eyes and heart to the world, and as a mother who wants desperately for her kids to not have the same narrow views that I did at their age. You gave me a window. You showed me how important it is to let others look through your lens. You put yourself on paper for judgement and consumption and you did so without apology or hesitation. It was such a welcome gift.
I'm sorry you got the short end of the stick on our arrangement.