When I was in elementary and middle school, each year, St. Jude's hospital for kids with incurable, heartbreaking diseases would show up at our door to hawk their cheesy wares. The point was to raise money for the hospital to aid in the research and fight against things like leukemia and other cancers. We were to con our parents and other neighbors into "sponsoring" us on a math test. For each math question answered correctly on the test, a person could donate money, like laps in a walk-a-thon. Most people would sponsor me for a penny or nickel, occasionally a dime. The first year we did it, my uncle sponsored me for a dollar a question. He was unaware that little Curtis was nicknamed "Wayne the Brain" in elementary school, and it ended up costing him somewhere around $70.
All for the sick children.
But the best part about the Math-A-Thon wasn't the fact that we were helping other children who couldn't help themselves. No, it was the swag. Just like with Accelerated Reader, the points that we racked up by answering those questions and making all that money translated into awesome prizes for us. Most of them were cheap, like pencil toppers and erasers, but some were a little swankier, like 12-inch black and white TVs, stereo sets and technicolor cordless phones. I had my eyes on that TV.
The one in my room was actually bigger, but it was one my parents had bought for my sister and that I had eventually inherited. I wanted a TV that was mine and mine alone, that I had worked my fingers to the bone for (this was the closest I would come to actually working in my youth.)
I worked the streets of Williamsburg like an old, experienced prostitute: Nickels here, dimes there, occasionally even a quarter from an old person with nothing better to do with their money. And then came the day of receiving our results from our "Funbook," the workbook full of math problems that we were to complete. I yearned so much for the TV that I had spent too much time saying goodbye to my own and had neglected a few of the problems at the end. When I saw that I was a few hundred dollars short of the TV, my heart was crushed.
Who cared about little Jimmy with fetal alcohol syndrome? I wanted that TV, dammit.
In the end, I settled for the dark teal cordless phone, a set of headphones that plugged into the phone, serving as both the receiver and the transmitter, so it was completely hands-free talking, and an awesome small duffle bag with the Math-A-Thon logo on the side, pictured below:
I used it as my backpack for the entire year. It was handy, and I felt pretty cool carrying something that announced my math prowess with such style and sophistication.
My friends, however, despised that bag. I would usually tail behind them in going anywhere, especially upstairs to our classes. The bag would swing and sway mercilessly, knocking the back of their knees and sending them tumbling onto the steps. The bag had become a weapon, and had to be destroyed.
When they thought I wasn't listening or wasn't in the room, they would plot the bag's demise.
"We could burn it," one would say to another.
"No, it's protected by magic. Fire can't touch it," the other would reply.
(That line might instead be taken from the movie Hocus Pocus, starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I don't doubt that it is reminiscent of what my friends would do.)
When I finally grew out of the bag and it became too cumbersome to lug around with my heavier high school books, I relinquished it into eternal majesty. And by that, I mean I gave it to my friend and she threw it in her fireplace.
They danced on the ashes.