When I was 10 years old, I was pulling in about $3.00 a week in allowance, but I made up for that at school, where I made about $30 a week with the ultimate master plan a 10 year old ever imagined. More about that below. If I am going to be honest, I am less ashamed of the borderline diabolical schemes I came up with as a kid. Looking back, I still have to give myself credit for being a really smart kid – despite some questionable poor choices – I turned out really good – even my siblings will tell you that. For what you are about to read, I am nor proud of, nor condoning, but I think the statute of limitations on 4thgrade mischief vindicates me to an extent, (and there’s even a moral at the end – FTW).
Blame it on books. I read a lot. Books made me smarter. And I learned about other smart kids too. It may have started with the Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald and Mercer Mayer – inspiring me with the exploits of a juvenile criminal genius. Maybe it was Mark Twain’s fault for when Tom Sawyer tricked the kids of his town to not only whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence for him, but to pay him to do it. I think, deep down, my desire to be a mastermind came from a desire to show the world that I could out-smart the grown-ups.
In 4th grade, I switched schools. I went from a school of advantage, to an inner-city school of less means. The first thing I noticed at day:1 at my new school, was all schools are not created equal. And one thing was abundantly clear – kids at this school were not very bright. I didn’t like it. My classmates lacked class and grace and manners. They swore and cursed and spit. And that was the girls, too. I felt like I was misplaced. Some kids were dumb AND tough – a bad combination. I even got punched in the gut for calling a kid a troglodyte. One thing was common – none of the kids at this school liked to read. None of them.
Because the school was rampant with under-achievers, it was run like a minimal security prison – easy to see the loopholes in the system. Maybe the faculty didn’t have a lot of confidence in the students’ chances of outsmarting them. And that was when I realized how much I could get away with for being a brainiac.
I packed my own lunch every day, so it took me a while to get an understanding of the hot lunch system at this school. I started noticing kids were often carrying little 2” wooden cylinders. These were lunch tokens. Lunch for the week was $10, and you get five tokens. Or you could buy them individually for $2.25. I didn’t see the angle right away. I was laying in my bed one night, (the bottom of a bunk bed), and was fiddling with the slats above me when a peg popped out. The peg was a bit slimmer, but almost identical to school lunch tokens. The next morning, I put phase:1 of my plan to the test.
I hemmed and hawed about how to do it, but once I got up in line, the lunch lady took the peg just as quickly as I handed it to her, and threw it in her bucket without even looking at it. And I learned that day that there really was such a thing as a free lunch. That week, when grocery shopping, I told my mom I had a school project and needed some dowel rods. I compared the width of the lunch token with the medium dowel rods and they were a perfect fit. A 60¢ dowel rod properly cut down wielded about 18 counterfeit tokens. The next day at school, I invented the playground black market.
I started safe. I told just a small handful of kids. They didn’t quite understand. That was the toughest part. They couldn’t even handle the basic math that If they gave me just $5 for 5 tokens, they would be pocketing $5 of the $10 their moms gave them every week.
Being 10, I hadn’t thought of everything. How do I get word around to the students without my name getting blacklisted? What if it gets too big and the teachers start noticing that lunch sales are plummeting? It turned out, even with all my precautions, it was the easiest thing in the world to do. I had about 8-12 regular customers who wanted their easy $5 a week, so they amazingly kept their mouths shut. So then, my playground black market turned into a full-blown syndicate. Even after doing this for months, none of these kids were bright enough to realize it was just a common piece of wood. One inquisitive kid once asked, “So Ry, where do you get these tokens anyway?” In which I told him that I get them from the same school lunch token distributor that the school uses. #genius #quickthinking
So I had more money than any 10 year old kid should have. I didn’t even eat the school lunches, even though they were “free”. I would usually ditch out at lunch time and go play video games at 7-11 and get microwave burritos. It was hot and cold running Slurpees and endless comic books 24-7 at 7-11. Ohhhhh the comic books. I could buy any of them…and I bought ALL of them. I read everything. Every title available. Jonah Hex. Booster Gold. The Flash. Sgt. Rock. The Incredible Hulk. Swamp Thing. The Metal Men. Spider-Man…All of them. I read so much. I also started spending my money on chapter books. When the Scholastic catalog came (best day of the school year), I placed my own order without needing to beg my mom for a boost in my allowance.
So before too much judgment gets passed on me, please remember, I was 10. I don’t know why I looked at it as more of a gray area back then. I DID know the difference between right and wrong, but convinced myself perhaps that, at the time, I felt this is what I needed to do to get ahead and also to survive a tough school. So despite the realization that I maybe made a better super-villain than the Riddler or Black Manta, all the super-heroics I was reading left a valuable long-term impact on me – my clear sense of right and wrong. I never did end up getting in trouble for my operation. I think “learning things the hard way” doesn’t always teach the best lesson. Getting in trouble just makes you regret your choices. It was reading that made me learn my lesson of the difference between right and wrong:
For one example, in a particular issue of Spider-Man, a cosmic being of limitless power known as the Beyonder turned a NYC building and all its contents into solid gold with a “metaphysical Midas touch”. The authorities were being run ragged at the general public clawing at each other to get inside it. And even Spider-Man has an internal crisis in the form of a solid gold wastebasket with a single solid gold crumpled up bunch of paper. His rationale was it was something discarded that is now valuable, and no one would miss it. It could pay off Peter Parker’s growing debt. In the end, he stuck by the clear line of right and wrong. It may have taken me years and years to absorb my lessons, but as a grown man, I feel I am very moral. I have a desire to do good. I know that when tempted, I strive to choose the right path, and I have a hero’s heart. And I love reading so much now.
What are some things you did as a kid that you are not proud of that have made you a better person today?