1958, upstate New York.

We had three sixth-grade classes. Kids stayed with their original classmates each year as the group moved through the grades. We only had seven girls in my class and twice as many boys, so we knew each other well. We mixed with the other classes in assemblies, gym class, recess and lunch, or when a class put on a play or lesson for all the classes to watch or interact with.

Much of the time was spent with only our classmates. It felt very consistent and safe during those years despite the threats of a nuclear war with Russia and a polio pandemic only a newspaper story away.

Air raid drills were common; we’d grab our jackets and sit in the hallways pressed against the cinder block wall with our knees bent up and jackets over our heads covering us while the principal, Sanger B. Steel, a social activist, read poetry over the loudspeaker. Once we all gathered to hear Pete Seeger sing, and our principal accompanied him on the guitar.

Despite not much change to our everyday interactions, we grew confident that fallout shelters would protect us and that a vaccine was on the verge of ending the polio pandemic.

And then, it happened! The spirit of change was in the air, in the form of a new girl in Mr. Gowalski’s class! She had blond hair and cool clothes and was bound to be popular from day one.


With only six other girls in my class, I longed to have a new girlfriend, but since I was in Mrs. Kellogg’s class and she was in Mr. Gowalski’s class, there was little chance I would get to know her.

So, I had a plan! Every time I passed her, I smiled! Even though she was always with a group of girls, she noticed me! She smiled back. And eventually we conversed. Her name was Carol. Her dad had just been transferred here for work, and her mom was about to have a baby.

She invited me for a sleepover and we had the best time as 11-year-olds finding things in common. And we became good friends with many more adventures.

Shortly after, her mother had a baby girl and she let Carol choose her sister’s name. Carol named her “Nancy”! My name!

Carol’s family moved away the next year when her father was transferred again, as was common with corporate companies in the late ’50s. Upward mobility was what everyone strived for, and it was the beginning of the confluence of the mobile society we’ve become with the immutable security we left behind.

I don’t know where Carol ended up, but she taught me “a smile is the shortest distance between two people.”

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