The classroom is quiet, save for the quiet rustle of turning pages and the scratching of pencils. Acned skin, cat’s-eye glasses, beehive hairdo. The teacher sits at the desk in front of the room monitoring the work. She strolls the aisles from time to time, straightening the paper on a child’s desk so that it is centered on the slanted desk top, excusing a child with a broken lead to go over to the pencil sharpener on the side wall. She sighs all the while.
The brown-haired girl sits midway through the middle row. She has a name that starts with K, putting her close to the middle of the alphabet. She has finished her worksheet long before and is gearing up for a battle of wills with the teacher. Her legs are long enough to reach the floor and she wants desperately to trip the teacher. Instead she very carefully and slowly pulls the desktop up slightly, almost imperceptibly. She knows without looking where the teacher is in the room. She knows which lines of sight will keep her safe and which won’t.
She slowly moves two fingers into the desk to a strategically placed small white paper bag. The two fingers grasp a square of Hershey Bar, exit the desk, and the lid silently closes. The girl coughs quietly, politely puts her hand to her mouth, and relaxes into the taste of the chocolate.
It is 1956. I am 10 years old. And my teacher, Miss Brockhaus, is turning me into an addict.
One block down 30th Street from our house was the back entrance to the schoolyard. Two blocks down was the Little Store. It may have had another name, but we always called it the Little Store. I never went very far into the store—what I wanted was on the right just beyond the cash register. A heavenly panoply of penny candy—Lik’m’aid, wax figures full of sweet colored syrup, Tootsie pops, gum balls, and chocolate bars.
I don’t remember exactly when I made the connection between the restlessness that I felt in class and the sweet relief of the candy. I know I was unhappy when I had to sit quietly waiting for others to finish their work and I was angry when Miss Brockhaus would scold me for reading ahead in my book when some other kid was reading aloud. I had energy I didn‘t know what to do with. I spent the fall of that year in trouble, passing notes, talking to my neighbor, writing “I will not talk in class” thousands of times over several months. I began to spend more time in the hall, sent out of the classroom for misbehaving, and then eventually to the principal’s office. I felt ashamed and angry. I complained to my mother (“I just need something to do”), who talked to Miss Brockhaus, but nothing changed. I tried to do nothing, but I just couldn’t.
Then one day I went the Little Store on the way back to school from lunch. I bought a few pennies’ worth of candy, and I ate it all on the way to school and felt better for some of the afternoon. I started doing that on the days I got my allowance or could earn a nickel or a dime for extra chores. Some days I stole coins from my mother’s purse or took some of the loose change that my father placed on the dresser each night when he emptied his pockets. So I wouldn’t feel so rushed, I went to the Little Store on the way home at the end of the day, buying enough for after school and the next day in school. Soon not content with sneaking it at recess, I sneaked the chocolate into my desk. Part of it was a game: don’t get caught. It gave me something to do, a way to plan and scheme and pay attention in class. But more of it had to do with how the candy, especially the chocolate, soothed my feelings. When I’d had enough sugar, I didn’t feel so restless, so disengaged from my surroundings. Even better, the sugar helped me not care that I was bored.
I was learning how to take care of myself.