I grew up in a sleepy town in Iowa, deep in the country about an hour’s drive from the nearest interstate, but even that kind of seclusion could not protect me from the horrors of organized elementary school crime. I was in 2nd Grade when it all started. I lived out in the country, miles from the nearest classmate. My parents couldn’t get far enough from everyone else, it seemed. I was too young to bike the required distance to seek out companionship, so every summer I turned to books to get me through the lonely days. I read a lot and at an advanced level, but I didn’t know because other than my younger sister, another advanced reader, reading the 3 Musketeers and Gulliver’s Travels in a week was commonplace. Yet because of this isolation, I found myself ill prepared for the social aspect of a book reading competition that would crush my soul.
Ms Hotchkiss had introduced the school’s reading initiative to us, a competition called “Read A Million Minutes”. For the next 2 months, we were to record our time spent reading and then as a school we’d combine these times to see if we could hit 1 million minutes. Ms Hotchkiss was going to up the ante for our 2nd grade classroom. She split the class into boys and girls, and whichever team read more minutes would receive an ice cream party. It was an innocent enough move on her part to spark some friendly competition, but it would drive a wedge between the sexes that would last until puberty.
Week 1 Without a hitch, this was the easiest week. The girls were ahead at the very beginning, but that was to be expected. The girls had shown much more excitement at the onset of the competition, and more of the boys were enrolled in soccer at the YMCA, which took a good 2 hours out of our available reading time. We were very competitive, however, and we made a pact with each other that we would buckle down and beat the girls at this competition. School stuff was the girl’s domain, and we wanted to beat them on their own turf.
I did have my worries. The boys were committing to reading an ‘hour’ when they got home. I started reading as soon as I got home, took a break for dinner, and then stopped when it was time to brush my teeth and go to bed. Sometimes I didn’t even stop when it was time to go to bed, I just kept going. Still, I had learned about multiplication just recently, and twelve boys times sixty minutes was a lot of time, more than I could do in a day, unless that day was Saturday because I totally finished three literary classics last Saturday.
Week 2 The boys were ahead now, which sounds like a good move to win a competition, but it was a tragic mistake. We were 2nd grade boys, and as any parent of a son knows, 2nd grade boys are turds. We weren’t winning gracefully. We celebrated, we bragged, and we rubbed it in every chance we got. The girls would never hear the end of it if we had our way. The boys had dominated, and nothing could please our little jubilant hearts more. Ms Hotchkiss had to resort to the school’s discipline method of writing our names on the board to keep us in line. A name on the board was bad, but was just a warning shot fired by the teacher across the bow. If we misbehaved again we got a check behind our name, and that meant that we lost recess for the day, and a couple of us got that check because we were monsters with no social graces. Despite our colossal victory over the girls, the threat of losing recess was too much for us, because we lived to play soccer every day over the course of three separate recess periods.
That week we created a monster. While we pumped our fists in the air and laughed heartily at the girls, they were gripping their little knuckles until they cracked and turned white. This was their turf, and they were going to defend it. They didn’t show their anger in its entirety. Brimming with irritation they forced their revenge down to fester deep in their chests. Decades later, I know that this is a sign that a woman is at her most dangerous, but back then I was an oblivious bungler. I couldn’t have known.
We sucker punched them with our minute count, and that was embarrassing. A bunch of stupid boys weren’t going to take the ice cream party away from them. They might have lost the battle, but they would crush our souls and make us beg for mercy before this war was over. Ms Hotchkiss’s second grade class was a house divided.
In this state of unfettered braggadocio, there was one boy who wasn’t celebrating, and that was me. Ms Hotchkiss had drawn up a bar graph, something we were learning about in math, which showed how many minutes the boys had read vs how many minutes the girls had read. Something looked wrong with the graph. Could it be possible that Ms Hotchkiss had made a mistake? Because I knew how many minutes I had read, and according to the bar graph I was looking at, I had contributed more than half of the minutes to our cause. You might even say that the boys contributed a sliver of the minutes, a barnacle upon the whale of minutes I had slaved over. We hadn’t beat the girls this week; I had beat the girls this week. I had given up my entire weekend to put those points on the board. It wasn’t a great sacrifice, I loved to read, but it took a lot of effort and I wasn’t sure if I had that in me another time around.
Week 3 The previous two weeks, Hotchkiss had made a bar graph of boys in blue and girls in purple. This week she had an entirely new one. This week there were 4 bars on the graph: Boys (blue), girls (purple), Cassie (red), and Steve (green). I was in first place, Cassie was in second, the girls were in third, and I’m not even sure if the boys were even trying. I was floored. How could this be? Surely one hundred and forty hours of reading in 3 weeks wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, was it? Yet the numbers spoke for themselves. I had one hundred and forty hours. Cassie had ninety. The girls had seventy-five. The girls and Cassie had more minutes than the boys and I had.
Ms Hotchkiss called Cassie and I to the front of the classroom. She pronounced us the king and queen of reading, gave each of us fun pencil, and then had us turn to face the class. Hotchkiss started clapping, and everyone else took up the cue to clap also, but I saw trouble in the sea of my fellow classmates. The boys had already lost interest in the competition, staring off out the window at the soccer field as they absently clapped. It was good enough for them that they had won last week, and now they didn’t care, especially now that ‘their’ victory had just become ‘my’ victory. The girls, on the other hand, did care. They cheered for Cassie by name, and then one by one they each turned to me. Each had a tight, mischievous smile on their face as their eyes narrowed to pinpricks. They knew that everything they wanted was in their grasp. Every single boy in this chain was a weak link. They only needed to beat me.
This was the moment that the 2nd Grade Mafia formed.
Julius Caeser himself would have been impressed with their ability to divide and conquer. The first recess took place right after reading class. I got ready to run out to the soccer field when another classmate named Pam pulled me aside. “Hey Steve, take a look at this!”
I couldn’t believe it. Written in lavender pen on unicorn stationary, I walked through a math problem. We had just learned division, and what I saw was horrible. The boys were reading less than an hour a day. Their entire reading chunk was in the remainder section because one hour didn’t’ work for them. Pam tilted her head to the side and said “they really let you down, huh. Leaving you to do all the work for them so that they can eat your ice cream at the ice cream party.”
Pam was right, and I was livid. I ran out to meet the boys on the soccer field. “Hey!” I called out to all of the boys gathered at the soccer field. “I thought we had a plan! We were all going to read a whole bunch.”
The boys all mumbled back excuses, realizing that they had broken a promise they cared nothing about, and had probably forgotten about until this moment. Seeing that I still cared, they were a bit embarrassed for me.
“Yeah, well you just need to read a bit more and we’ve got this.”
“We won last week.”
“Reading is boring.”
“Megan is right. You are a nerd.”
The last one hurt, stinging right to my exposed heart. Everyone stopped giving excuses, anger in their faces. Megan had gotten to them. I liked to read, but I knew it was a nerdy thing to do. Hotchkiss’s graph had exposed my anonymity. What I thought was a chance for me to show my passion for stories in an acceptable way had just turned out to be a source of condemnation on the soccer field, the holiest of places. I was mad with them, or so they had already heard from Megan, so they felt no remorse in dismissing me entirely. They weren’t going to stand by and let some nerd tell them what to do. The captains started to pick teams, deciding that the vow we had made on the holy soccer field was inconsequential and the boring conversation was over.
I whipped around and saw Megan there on the soccer field. There were three girls that played soccer with us: Lisa, Robin, and Megan. They were all huddled together, smiling those vehement little smiles while appraising me with their trenchant eyes. Was Pam a part of their plan, a way to keep me off the soccer field while Megan planted her seeds of betrayal in the minds of my allies? I had never experienced conspiracy before in real life, but I had read about it plenty in books, and I knew what was happening. The trouble was, I couldn’t convey that to these illiterate boys. If they didn’t read, they lacked the capacity to understand the big picture because they were working with such a small screen.
That day, I was picked last for a soccer team, technically not being picked at all. No one wanted an angry nerd on their team. Cassie, on the other hand, was allowed to cut to the front of any Tetherball, 4-Square, Hopscotch, or Double Dutch line that she wanted to. Just last week the boys had been flagrantly bragging about ‘their’ victory over the girls, but now that Hotchkiss had taken away their victory and made it my victory, reading was no longer cool and the competition meant nothing.
The girls had Cassie’s back.
The boys were too busy stabbing mine.
It was fine, I decided. The boys were dead to me. I’d have to walk this road alone.
Week 3 Reading List: Robinson Crusoe, Basil of Baker Street, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, The Dragonslayers, How To Eat Fried Worms