When I was a child, I cheated at the Pizza Hut Book-It program. At the time, I didn’t apply the word cheat to the fudging I performed on my Book-It list. But looking back I do, and it’s horrifying. Maybe I still take my childhood blunders seriously because I am not far from them. I am still very young. Recently a colleague remarked that “after fifth grade, it’s all downhill.” I agreed heartily, then realized she was talking about her children and I was talking about myself.
Do you remember Book-It? It’s a Pizza Hut program that encourages kids to read. Kids keep track of their at-home reading. If they complete the requirements, they receive praise and free pizza. At 10 years old, I considered myself a serious literary person and saw pizza as a superfluous perk. But praise I couldn’t live without.
My mother and father had given me several new books for Christmas that year. One was a gray-marbled collection of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, which I cherished. Out of it I memorized Alfred Noyes’s “Highwayman.” I also filled my little head with the bobbing, insolent lines of a poem called “How Did You Die?” by Edmund Vance Cooke. I walked in an endless rectangle across the railroad ties that framed our garden, reciting,
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts;
It’s how did you fight and why?
But in the affair of Book-It, I did not fight well or for a noble reason. As the school year melted away, I spent more and more free time with One Hundred and One Famous Poems. I also carried a book of Tennyson’s poetry that year. The book was as tattered as the word-burdened Tennyson himself, who was the first grownup poet I claimed hard. His sepia hair frizzled out to the edges of the volume I used to haul in my cheap backpack. That book survived scribbling, dog-earing, and one gigantic Kool-Aid spill.
When it came time to fill out our Book-It lists, I panicked. I was astonished that I had almost nothing to show for the whole year. I had One Hundred and One and Tennyson, but even those I hadn’t read in their entirety. Instead I had rolled the same words over my tongue again and again. So I cheated. I wrote down titles I had read the year before or read partially. I never repented. I never thought of repenting, until last week when it dawned on me that I had cheated.
Of course, if I had been reading Beverly Cleary rather than Alfred Lord Tennyson I might have squeaked through Book-It without doctoring numbers. Still, I find it hard to resist examining this episode as a herald of my future failures. To this day I am tempted to not fight well in the realm of academia, and then pretend I didn’t get licked. My husband joked that he could drive me to Pizza Hut, buy me a personal pan pizza and a sippy cup, and then take them away because I didn’t earn them.
But I doubt Pizza Hut would give a sippy cup to a 23-year-old. And God has grace, even for who I used to be.