Saturday, January 27

Fourth Grade Rats

by Jerry Spinelli
Scholastic 1991

"First grade babies!
Second grade cats!
Third grade angels!
Fourth grade . . . RRRRRATS!"

So goes the old playground chant, setting up the story of Spud and his pal Joey as they begin their first weeks of fourth grade. While Spud views the idea of being a rat something less than desirable Joey is proud of the possibilities. Being a rat to Joey means pushing smaller kids off the swings, making a mess of his room, defying his mother, trading peanut butter and jelly for bologna sandwiches, and bathing once a month. To Joey, being a rat is the first step toward being a man.

Spud is dubious, he's not really sure he's cut out to be a rat. Spud also has a crush on Judy Billings who doesn't even give him a second glance. But one day Joey allows a bee not only to crawl all over his arm but sting him and instantly he's a magnet for the attention of girls, including Judy Billings. And if that's what it takes to get her attention, then Spud's going to become a rat.

The going isn't easy for Spud. To prove he's no longer a crybaby he has to watch his video of E.T. and not cry. He has to dump his baby-ish lunchbox and start using a paper sack. He has to climb out onto the roof of his house and get over his fear of heights. And, according to Joey, he has to stand up to his mother and refuse to clean his room. Then Spud screws up his courage and tries to sit with Judy at lunch. When she rebuffs him, and when the school bully pulls the chair out from under him, he goes on a true rat-worthy rampage. He smashes a younger kid's face into his cake, he tosses kids off the swings with abandon, in short order he becomes the king rat.

Impressed, Judy wants to walk to school with him. Along the way she dares him to pick up and carry a spider to school, allowing it to crawl all over him, which vaults Spud into the third grade spotlight. But when Judy needs Spud to climb a tree and retrieve her cat his machismo falters as his fear of heights returns and he remains trapped in the tree until he can be rescued by his parents. Joey's own rattitude takes a sudden turn when his mother finally decides enough is enough. In the end, Spud learns his first steps toward becoming a man has little to do with acting mean and impressing girls and more to do with accepting himself for who he is.

That's quite a bit to cram into 80 pages, and Spinelli does it with the breezy economy that appeals to middle grade readers. It's interesting that Spinelli goes for the fourth graders moving from underdog to top dog because it is clear even in this book that the true top dogs are the barely-mentioned sixth graders. In that respect I think the book serves as a cautionary tale for younger readers who might be looking forward to moving into the top slots, a reminder that age is better served by humility and wisdom not bullying and bravado.

I stumbled onto this book recently after doing some research on playground folklore and anthropology. Although the "fourth grade rats" line is traditional for rhymes ending at fourth grade, versions that go all the way though middle school are slightly different.

First grade babies,

Second grade tots,

Third grade angels,

Fourth grade snots,

Fifth grade peaches,

Sixth grade plums,

Seventh grade ladies,

Eighth grade bums.
There are all sorts of slight regional variations, but none of those that go beyond fourth grade call them rats. I'm not quite sure how seventh grade boys feel about being ladies, or how eighth grade girls feel about being bums, but I can see why a fourth grader might prefer being a rat to a snot.
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