Dear Pen Pal

It’s March in Memphis, as evidenced by temperatures in the high 60s yesterday followed by predictions of a quarter inch of ice tonight. I’ve learned not to get too excited over predictions of winter weather here, especially this year when seemingly all our snow predictions have dwindled into just more swirling brown leaves at the curb. Luckily I have the March 2014 30 Days of Lists to keep me company. I completed this challenge once before in 2013 and found, to my surprise, that I was able to complete the entire month. My success inspired me so  that I decided that I could probably also complete NaNoWriMo in 30 days, and I did.

So when I saw the 30 Days of Lists announced  again of course I accepted, for who knows where it may lead me? I’ve done it for the two days of March, and so far it has led me  right to… the fourth grade! Today’s list prompt was to describe yourself to a pen pal. I like to follow these prompts as soon as I read them, writing the first thing that comes to mind. Here is what came to mind:

Does anyone else my age remember entering contests as a child? As I recall there were often contests involving prizes or giveaways. One contest was the Happy Hal Secret Toy Contest, in which you sent in your name and address, and Happy Hal, on his show, would draw the name of some lucky boy or girl to win the  toy of the week. And once a year he had the BIG giveaway, in which a child got to go in his toy warehouse for some predetermined amount of time and CHOOSE WHATEVER HE WANTED!!!!!!!

 The Happy Hal Show Source: ClemensArt.com

The Happy Hal Show Source: ClemensArt.com

I am sure I begged my mother to enter me, her most suitable child, in the contest, but whether she did  or not I do not know. The truth is that by  the time I was in elementary school I was starting to notice a disturbing pattern in my mother’s behavior. More and more it seemed, she was  willfully not following my directions. Clearly, with nothing more to do than all the cooking , cleaning, shopping, sewing, laundry, ironing, and child care in our home, she could easily have complied with my wishes.   I felt it necessary to remind her repeatedly of what I expected her to do, a strategy which did not always yield positive results, but that I was willing to proceed with if it meant I would eventually win the Secret Toy Contest.

On one occasion, my hounding must have paid off, for  when I was in the second grade she sent in my letter and picture to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to the Pen Pal of The Week Column. Oh, I was  the smug one at school for a time, for one of these days, all my classmates and teachers would open the paper and there I’d be, a celebrity from one end of the Mid South to the other. But when week after week passed without my picture in the paper,  I concluded the Commercial Appeal choosers were not going to select  me for Pen Pal of the Week.

The second grade passed, and the the third. I began to lobby my Mother for more sophisticated favors, such as having her take  me to see The Beatles. Sharon, a girl on my street whose father played the drums, got to see them, but I did not. I would have had a better chance at winning the Secret Toy Contest, now that I think about it.

Before I knew it I was in the fourth grade, writing flowery poetry modeled after ideas I’d read about in Little Women.   I argued my case with my teacher that I be given the lead part in a play about  a Christmas tree. After school most days I rode my bicycle  over to a vacant wooded strip of land in our neighborhood where my friends and I swung on hanging vines. I was confident that I could achieve the fame I wanted on my own, without depending upon my mother to sign me up for contests.

I was sophisticated, all right.

I was sophisticated, all right.

And then. THEN. Out of nowhere, with no warning, the Commercial Appeal published my second grade letter and picture in The Pen Pal of the Week. I had to go to school to be greeted by jeering fourth and fifth graders calling, “Hey, Pen Pal of the Week!” ” Tell us about your pets and pretty clothes!!!” What an intolerable humiliation! The paper might as well have published a picture of me as a baby, naked in a bathtub!

The damning evidence!

The damning evidence!

Not only was the picture out of date, although they had adjusted my age which just made me look even more babyish, but so was the two year old letter which stated among other things that my favorite subject was Math! What had I been thinking in the second grade? By now I had established myself as such a mediocre math student that Mary Ellen Somebody had to quiz me on my multiplication tables before school. Whoever I had been in the second grade, I was someone else now.

This was all my Mother’s fault for letting the paper do this. But my mother did not have to wait for the school bus after school, nor did she have to ride it. No, she was at home playing innocent! Once again the butt of jokes by these insufferable boys, including my own sixth grade brother, I took matters into my own hands one at a time, whacking them repeatedly with my purse.

Reenactment. Do not attempt this at home!

Reenactment. Do not attempt this at home!

Somehow I made it home on the bus, and home from the bus stop. Getting home from the bus stop could be tricky, in that it was a long run home if one were being pursued by one’s sixth grade brother. But I did get home, and maybe not that day, but in a few days there were letters – I don’t remember how many in all  – from second graders!

I wish I had kept or could even remember the letters. Away from nasty, sweaty, fourth grade boys with crew cuts with their derisive comments, in the partial privacy of the room I shared with my sister, I was FAMOUS. I had the letters to prove it. But I was conflicted. I loved receiving the letters, but public opinion was against me now. What did I want with letters from second graders who loved arithmetic? I had enough to deal with having to share a room with a first grader! I know I did answer one letter from a girl in Rosedale Mississippi, because I remember writing, “Rosedale Mississippi reminds me of Rosedale peaches in cling syrup.”  ( A brand we ate regularly)  I think I thought that if I sounded sarcastic and rude the younger child would realize I was out of her league  and buzz off. I wonder if my Mother mailed that letter?

4 thoughts on “Dear Pen Pal

  1. Ahahaha!! I laughed so hard at this, but I do not mean to mock your pain. I was BAFFLED that it said math was your favorite subject! Glad to have that cleared up. Also I LOVE the drawing! I am glad you kicked some fourth grade butt!

  2. What a great but sad story. I’ve seen that newspaper clipping before but never knew the whole story. Thanks for sharing what I am sure was a most painful experience.

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