Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun, and is the second largest, behind Jupiter. Saturn has several rings that became visible when Galileo invented the first telescope in 1610. From far away the rings look like beautiful solid hoops. But in fact, the rings are made out of dust, rocks and ice that clump together and break apart as they revolve around the yellow planet. This is what we learned about Saturn in the 4th grade.
In the fourth grade, I lived in Omaha, Nebraska. Science class was taught by Mrs. Payne, and you better not make a joke about that or you were going to the principle’s office. Mrs. Payne was famous not only for her name, but also for the little spit balls she’d get on her lip when she talked. They’d go up and down with her mouth, and we’d all sit there staring at them and wondering why she didn’t wipe them off and if that was going to happen to us when we became elderly 40 year-olds.
By the fourth grade, most of us had been in the same class for a couple years. We sat through insects and the food groups and the solar system together. We could all predict what everyone brought for lunch everyday. We knew that while Mrs. Payne flung her spit balls up and down, Renee Wagner was gonna ask too many questions, Matt Torsky was going to smell like pee, and Dawn Sykora was going to pick her scabs and eat them. Yawn. There was nothing new under our sun.
And then one day after the Christmas break, Becky Stout showed up in our class. Her family moved to our district from some faraway place called Georgia. We only knew how far away it was because Mrs. Payne pulled down the giant map and pointed it out with her big wooden poker. Georgia was way over there and purple, and Nebraska was here and blue, and Becky was dropped down into our midst wearing a pair of overalls and speaking with a southern drawl that was as exotic to us as caviar. We didn’t understand, and we were all instantly intrigued.
While most new kids would be shy and quiet, Becky was a firecracker from the get-go. She entertained us with her stories of Georgia roaches “so big you could put a saddle on ‘em.” She wondered why we didn’t have grits in the cafeteria. Um, because we don’t even know what grits are. When she said “Go Big Red” the word red grew into a three syllable word and there was a little kick at the end. She called her dad “daddy” and her mom “momma”. She always smelled like french fries. She could penny-drop like a god. We couldn’t stop looking at her or listening to her; we couldn’t stay away from her. She was a giant, charismatic shiny object in our tiny midwest lives of bologna sandwiches and orange drink. We were drawn, by gravity, to this little girl who magically appeared in our universe. And like the rings of Saturn, we, little chunks of ice and dust and rock, began to orbit around her.
Our school days grew brighter. It was like someone finally changed a 300 watt light bulb that’d been burned out for a long time. Fourth grade was suddenly more than braces and unfortunate hair cuts; we all fell into mad crush with Becky, and it made us all insanely happy, as only irrational love can do. Everyone always knew where she was and what she was doing, and we all clambered like hungry little beetles to be involved as much as possible. We hung around and hung on and became a collective love-struck herd that followed her wherever she went. Poor Becky. We must’ve been overwhelming, with our desperate desire to suck from her everything that was different from ourselves. But she endured us all with patience, generosity and joy, which made us love her even more.
Becky’s momma was a gospel singer who used to sing back-up for Elvis. Mary Lou Stout even had her own record and Becky gave us all a copy of it. It was called, “I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs.” We all took our copies home, and to the horror of our parents, played the shit out of that twangy little 45. It must be good music, right? It came from Becky. By March, we knew all the words and would sit on the playground singing, “when Jesus says to me well done, I’ll lay down my soul my battles are won. I’ll walk dem golden stairs when I die” in our finest god-fearing Georgia accents. The Nebraskan suburbs had never heard such a thing. Becky sat in the middle of it all, singing along, watching us bump into and climb over each other as we struggled to stay close to her, our yellow planet Saturn, our new reason for coming to school every day.
And then, just as quickly as she appeared, she vanished. Her daddy was transferred back to Georgia, and in an instant, she was gone- leaving us alone in the midwest with just some records and vague ideas about salvation to prove she was ever there. There was mass heartbreak and blank staring, lots of whining. Someone unscrewed the light bulb and threw it to shatter on the hall floor. We were blasted out of our reverie, our orbit, our seemingly solid new collective purpose as Becky Stout disciples and wanna-be Georgians - to revert back to what we used to be: just some old pieces of ice and rock, floating around without much purpose, sitting at our grey desks with our unfortunate haircuts, watching spit balls and eating scabs.
How does the second largest planet just up and leave the universe?