Thursday, September 22, 2005

Lunch Money, 1976.

Every few weeks, I'd make up my mind that middle school sucked beyond endurance. In addition, I'd revisit the crushing realization that my 14-year-old life was actually being wasted. Furthermore, I'd face the grim fact that three more years of being flushed out of the stacks in the school library and being forced to attend pep rallies was a permanent part of my pathetic landscape.

It was powerfully daunting crap to take stock of, but about the time I felt completely mired, something good would happen! The English teacher (her class always a tiny island of respite) would pass out the new Scholastic book order forms!

These order forms were (are?) only two thin sheets printed front and back with selections from the Scholastic Book Club, but to their credit, they made every little bit of space count, listing books that students could order, complete with a stamp-sized photo of each book cover and a tiny synopses artfully written to tickle the interest of even the most indifferent reader. Of course for me, the tickle was like a sledgehammer blow.

Everything -- English, Math, General Science, Vocal Music, Citizenship, Oklahoma History -- fell away as I studied my order form. Only threats of confiscation by some unreasonably irate teacher made me put it away to peruse later on the bus. I couldn't understand how some of the other students' order forms fell to the classroom floor and ended up torn and footprinted.

At home, I sprawled on my bed to study the list of books with the proper attention, gravity and reverence it deserved. My math phobia dissolved like mist as I scratched columns of figures on notebook paper like the most seasoned accountant, re-checked my choices, and scowled at the wadded dollar bills and assorted change I'd dumped on the pillow.

Heavy sigh. As usual, I wanted more than my allowance covered. This time, it was way more. Was Scholastic Books having some sort of brief literary renaissance, or was the recent onset of puberty the catalyst that set off the voice in my brain that intoned nonstop: "The books. The books. The books! The BOOKS! THE BOOKS!" a refrain that persists right to this very moment?

I would have to ask my mother and father for some money. I hated to ask them because they were non-readers. Both of them. They wouldn't get it. Oh sure, they bought me books, but they didn't understand the compulsion to have piles and piles.

I approached them in the living room at a moment they seemed to be relaxed and in a good mood. "I was wondering if I could have an advance on my allowance up through March." My allowance was $2.00 a week.

"No," said my mother automatically. I waited a minute. "Why?" she asked.

"I want to buy some books," I said.

"How many?"

I held up the Scholastic book order form. "This one, that one, and that other one." I pointed. "I have enough for these three, but I don't have enough for the other seven."

"You don't need ten books," said my mother.

Yes, I do. I need them. I thought.

"You've got books," my father chimed in. "There's books stacked up in that room I'd bet you've never looked at."

You'd bet wrong.

"When do they need the money?" asked my mother.


"This is not a good week to ask. Just get those three. That's enough for now."

No use arguing. I took my order form and headed back down the hall. "Well, hell." I muttered.

"What'd I hear?" My father called out.


Back in my room, my mood continued to darken, and the prospect of school resumed its usual dreary proportions.

The next morning I rose reluctantly and trudged to the breakfast table. There by my cereal bowl lay two dollars and fifty cents!

"Don't forget your lunch money," my mother said.

I grabbed it and held it in my left hand as I spooned cereal into my mouth with my right. "Don't worry, I won't."

I could hardly wait to get out of the house. More scratched figures in the notebook. Two-fifty! One week of lunches! Lousy lunches that inevitably featured a meat dish that tasted like soggy cardboard covered in gravy. Boring vegetable medleys. The tiniest smidgen of dessert. All washed down with milk, which I loathed. To hell with that. I was going to get at least three more books. That would make six. Six was a far cry from the ten I craved, but I knew I couldn't be happy with only three.

For the rest of the week, I hung out in the library during lunch. That Friday, I turned in my order form and money, and 4-6 weeks later, I brought my nice fat package of books home.

"How did you get all those books?" my mother asked.

Since there was nothing she could do now, I told her about saving up my lunch money. She was appalled. "You went hungry so you could buy a damn book?" She shook her head. "Don't do that again."

"OK," I said.

Of course I did it again.  And again.  Over the years, I've saved hundreds in lunch and grocery money and staggered bill payments to afford books. It'll never end. In my mind, I look ahead, many years down the road. I envision a long Barnes & Noble receipt taped to my gravestone.


Anji said...

We used to have those book lists in the UK too. My parents couldn't afford much and I had two sisters who were keen readers as well, so I was only allowed ONE at a time. Thanks for the memory!

Anji said...

I've really enjoyed reading your blog, thank you

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I remember waiting impatiently for the book orders to come in. I remember saving all my pennies so I could go to B. Dalton to buy another Robert Heinlein book or Bertie Wooster novel.

I am still an addict. Good to hear from you, sister!

JoanneMarie Faust said...

I loved Scholastic Book Service. As soon as the teacher would pass out the list, I would check off every book on it that I hadn't read yet and hand it right back. After repeatedly being asked for money so I could bring my new books home, my mom made me start bringing the form home so she would at least know in advance what my reading habit was going to cost her. Thanks for bringing back such great memories for me!

Anonymous said...

Such an awesome story - I remember those book forms and rereading and refiguring my order to get it just right.

Every birthday and Christmas I make sure my husband (and family) have access to my (never-ending) list of must-have books. Book are the best gifts ever!