When I Was 10 Years Old, I Made Hundreds of Parents Cry
All I wanted was a shiny new bike, the award for winning first place in an essay contest at my elementary school.
My family was poor, so I never got a new bike for Christmas or birthdays. And by poor I mean running out of food and Dollar Store back-to-school outfits for the entire school year. It wasn’t India-level poverty with a family of 14 living on piles of garbage in the slums of Mumbai.
In my household it was more like Little House on the Prairie in the 1880s but with atheism and electricity. I always had a hand-me-down bike and now that I was in the fifth grade, I was getting too big for the first and only bicycle I ever had, which was covered in rust.
When I rode my beat-up bike around the neighborhood, I could feel all the cable-and-braces kids judging me, the ones showing off their socio-economic status by wearing Swatch watches and Guess jeans.
With my rusted bike that was way too small for me and second-hand shoes, they knew I was the poor kid.
So when my teacher announced the essay contest and the award for first place — a brand new adult-sized beach cruiser — I knew it was my only chance to get the bicycle of my dreams. I had to win the essay contest.
It was the ’80s, so homeroom was a full hour of Say No To Drugs curriculum, the D.A.R.E program from Nancy Reagan’s War On Drugs agenda.
The essay prompt was simple enough but pretty intense for a 5th grader:
How have drugs and alcohol affected your family in a negative way?
Since I was five years old, my dad and brothers had literally beaten all of the pretense and BS out of me. So I approached the essay as I did most things — with brutal honesty.
I wrote about my dad, a bad-tempered teetotaler, and his daily beatings of my older brothers, who were both teenage alcoholics.
I was just a kid and didn’t understand domestic violence. I couldn’t comprehend why my dad was in such a bad mood all the time. But now it all makes sense.
My dad was the janitor at my school. He had severe scoliosis from a bad case of polio when he was five, which made his back so curved it look like the shape of a cane.
His back ached all the time but he never took anything for the pain, not even an aspirin. Looking back, I wish he had. Maybe he would have been in a better mood.
Sometimes I wonder: If I had known the term child endangerment, would I have called the cops? Would I have known to dial 911 when my dad was punching my brother in the face and trying to drown him in the lake?
In retrospect, it was the 80s, so corporal punishment was considered acceptable by society, and probably why the Department of Children and Families never showed up at our house after I turned in my essay.
I handed in my essay and went about my day. I forgot all about what I had written, but I didn’t forget about that shiny new bike. I daydreamed about it constantly.
If I won first place, I would pick out a pink color and get sparkly streamers added to the handlebars. I had always liked girly things and it would also keep my older brother from stealing it.
The awards ceremony was finally here and I was anxious and excited with anticipation. All the parents were filling up the auditorium, and the D.A.R.E teacher, a local police officer, was going to announce the winner, who would then read their essay to the audience.
They called out my name. I won the essay contest. I was really surprised, especially since I had always been an outcast. As the only Jewish kid in the entire school of mostly Southern Baptists, I was either bullied and told that I killed Jesus or ignored.
When I walked up to the podium and read my essay aloud into the microphone, I was very nervous, looking out at a sea of judgy parents, the same ones that were teaching their kids to either harass or ignore the non-Christian Jesus-killing Jew, Yours Truly.
But when I got to the final sentence and looked out to the audience again, every single person was crying. Mothers had tears streaming down their faces, grown men were sniffling and dabbing the corners of moist eyes.
I was shocked at their response. Why would they be crying? It’s not like we’re at a funeral. I just wanted to get first place in the essay contest and win a bike.
I didn’t understand all the tears in the audience. In my house, no one ever cried unless it was physical pain, like falling off my bike and scraping up my knee. Or my dad picking me up by my ponytail and throwing me against the wall.
My mom never cried. She was really tough and even when she was upset, she would always hold back the tears.
When my mom drove me home from the awards ceremony, she was dabbing her eyes and sniffling a little.
My dad and siblings, including an older sister, never showed up to these events. So it was just me and my mom.
I was so confused but also very excited I had won a new bike. It was a mix of emotions.
Naturally, I had lots of questions, so I asked my mom,
Me: Why was everybody in the audience crying?
I was so confused.
My Mom: You’re a good writer.
Because of constant negative feedback from my classmates, my brothers, and my dad, I never suffered from high self-esteem like the-trophies-for- everyone generation of today’s youth, so this unexpected praise only added to my confusion.
I wouldn’t understand until much later when I became a professional writer. At the time, I had no idea why all those parents were crying their eyes out. But I did know that the beautiful pink bike I rode around the neighborhood every day I had earned with my words.
My brother did steal the bike, but he eventually returned it, although the shiny pink pant was covered in scuff marks and dirt, and the glorious streamers ripped out.
After winning the essay contest, I knew I had to be a writer. No matter how hard it was, no matter if I had to sleep on couches or live under a bridge.
Luckily I was never homeless but I did a fair share of couch-surfing and renting substandard apartments after graduating college.
Why would I choose one of the most competitive professions? Because I wanted to push people out of their comfort zone and make them feel things. To remind them of their humanity.
That purpose and passion for writing has always stayed with me. It’s also why I was a disaster at other careers, from applying to ophthalmology school to office work and retail.
Fast forward a few decades and here I am, not a rich and famous best-selling author that I daydreamed about as a kid. But I’m a working writer and it pays the bills, plus a little extra. And for that I’m grateful.
I’m also grateful because I figured out early on what career I needed to pursue to ward off an existential crisis.
For more articles by Jesse Whitman, visit the entertainment and culture blog Dinner and Movie Night.