"I'd like to see a show of hands for the poem you thought was best... and you can't vote for your own." Mr. Gold, my sixth grade teacher, leaned on his podium with the first half-smile I'd seen in weeks. Each student had just stood to read his or her original poem, and the result seemed to please him. His eyes traveled slowly from head to head up and down the rows, his voice called out the name of each student. Everyone waited for someone to raise his or her hand, but so far not one poem received any votes.
I was in the fourth of five rows, I could feel my name around the corner, a freight truck in the oncoming lane. Susie, behind me, would get all the votes. Everyone wanted to be Susie's friend because no one wanted to be beat up by her. My name hit me along with a sudden slap of hands into the air above our heads. I stared around the classroom, stunned, as Mr. Gold took in the count of votes.
"Oh no, my poem was stupid," I said in protest. I thought for sure this was some kind of conspiracy formed for the sole purpose of picking on me.
"No, it wasn't. It was good," I heard Susie say, followed by several similar comments from her many friends.
"It was quite good," said Mr. Gold.
I looked around, studying faces for a glint of deceit, listening for a snicker under clasped hands. I had just read a poem about being in love with a dead race horse. How could anyone think that is good? Yet a strong feeling of sincerity occupied the room. I began to let the sweetness of it all expand inside me as the class continued the voting process. This was the first time in the seven years of my elementary education that my peers showed any approval toward me. I finally had a taste of popularity, and just in time for junior high school.
Many years later, when I was a wild high school student, not popular but a loner who like to cause trouble, a self-sensitive girl who spent her evenings writing poems by her window when she wasn't out turning the town upside-down, I answered my door to find a little Girl Scout selling cookies.
This could have been a wonderful opportunity for me, since my mother had appointed my brother and I to be responsible for chasing off the peddlers. Just the week before, my brother thoroughly impressed my mother by scaring off a couple of Bible bangers while opening the peephole and speaking in a possessed voice reminiscent of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. However, before I could conceive a creative idea on how to get rid of the girl and somehow still obtain a package of Thin-Mints, she spoke up with a seemingly omniscient gift.
"Did you used to be in Mr. Gold's class?" she asked.
Feeling nervous that this girl not only knew where I lived, but knew my sixth-grade teacher, I mumbled a yes.
"I thought so. He talks about you all the time."
"What?" I said, sensing fear rising in me, searching for something I'd done wrong that Mr. Gold might still remember. It was the spit wads, he must be using me as an example of what happens to students when they fling spit wads.
"I saw your soap box derby racer in your garage. He talks about your cars and he reads your poems to us."
"No way," I said, challenging the girl as if it were all a lie. She's picking on me, I thought. In one short conversation and the mention of Mr. Gold, I had shrunk down to the size of this little Girl Scout standing on the step before me.
"Would you like to order some cookies?" she asked.
I took her order form from her and signed up for three boxes of Thin-Mints and one box of those peanut butter cookies. Then I thanked her kindly and wished her luck, warning her that my brother was at the next door neighbor's house, and she just might want to skip selling cookies over there.