Back when I was a wee lad, video games were not the all-consuming life force that they are today. Kids went outside, they read, and more importantly, they were rewarded for reading.
At my elementary school the local librarian organized a "page drive" where dedicated children could reward their love of books with more books. Free books. Free books that they could take home forever and not have to share with "the kid who stuck his boogers between the pages." For a relatively poor kid like myself, I would sign up for eating nails as long as I could eat them for free. Free was, for lack of a better visual, my everything. I'm still bitter that I paid to attend a screening of Free Willy-- especially because I could have gotten that from my uncle for nothing (cough).
So when my kindly librarian organized a contest where you got a FREE book for every 500 pages you read, I knew that I'd stumbled across something special. Kids would start the program in kindergarten and the librarian would keep track of each child throughout their educational progression. It may sound kind of fishy, in this "trust no single adults with access to our children" era but my peers and I made it through unmolested (mostly at least... odds are that somebody in my class at least was getting the ol' rub and tug without my knowledge). At the end of the cycle, when us youngsters would graduate sixth grade, the top three readers would be presented with a certificate for pages read, in addition to the small stack of free books we'd accumulated over the years of our hard work. Had I known about the certificate, I might have steered well clear of the contest all together. But then again, it was a free certificate, so I was doomed regardless.
My undoing was the free books. They weren't boring old library books left over from some bygone era when abortions were only something that astronauts did; rather, they were glossy and new and beautiful. Titles like "Can You Teach Me How to Pick My Nose," "My Teacher Is An Alien," "A Boy In The Girls Bathroom," and just a whole mess of crap by Judy Blume. All I dreamt of at night were neoclassic tomes centered on kids dealing with wacky Louis Sachar-esque malevolence. Needless to say I would do whatever it took to get every single one that was humanly possible. I didn't even necessarily need to read them all... just possessing them had merit. The works of Bruce Coville and Martyn Godfrey would be akin to souls that I held dominion over; somehow, some way, I would have power. Free power.
I had several factors on my side: I was an avid reader, being the first. This helped in that my mother, who had to sign off an affidavit of sorts that I had indeed dutifully read the book, did indeed believe I had read the book. I merely had to tote some showpiece of literature around and announce a few days later that the book was either "satisfactory" or "a bit too maudlin for my conservative taste" and she'd sign. Second, my dad had a treasure trove of Stephen King books ranging in the 600- 1200 page realm. Read three of those babies and I had enough free books to generate several more free books. Pretty soon I was cranking pages out at a fever pace, glossing over paragraphs and constructs meant for individuals well above and below my "suggested reading level." The third factor I had on my side was a wonderfully naïve librarian who looked upon me as her shining achievement. I bet she thought I'd grow up to be a librarian myself, or at the very least, a fantastic writer. Boy, was she wrong on both accounts.
And so it was, on that fateful day when I graduated sixth grade, and I sat in my little folding chair amongst my peers and their immediate families in the packed auditorium that I learned a valuable lesson.
My librarian, proud as can be, took the stage with her certificates. After a few cursory remarks about the evils of those aforementioned video games, she announced: "In third place, with 15,765 pages read: Calvin Larson (names changed to disregard the less important, naturally). In second place, with 15,882 pages: Melissa Schonauer. And in first place, Jeff Klima." She waited till the polite applause died down and I could take the stage, which I did, eager for my free certificate. And then she said, "Jeff read 3,876,265 pages!" And as I stood there in that auditorium, my lies reflected in the staring orbs of my classmates and their loved ones, I realized that one lesson which has since stuck with me forever after: Fuck 'em all.