The Tall Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

I have a confession. I’ve been carrying a certain guilt for about 30 years. In celebration of the first day of summer and rounding the last lap toward 40, I think it’s time to relieve my conscience.

Ready?

I cheated on a math contest in fourth grade.

Wow. Outrageous.

Jurisdiction of the Crime? Waterford Elementary School, Waterford, VT.

Location? Miss Ouellette’s class. Date? Spring 1978.

Do you think it’s silly to be thinking about this 30 years later?

Well, maybe. But it’s not just about the cheating. It’s a bit worse—I actually won the contest because of it. Beat the whole class. And what was the coveted prize? A Hershey bar.

To my fourth grade peers who might be reading this and shrinking in horror at this tidbit of information, I apologize. I made a poor decision. I cheated. And I won.

I did enjoy the Hershey bar, though.

I anticipated fourth grade with great dread because Miss Ouellette was known to be the strictest teacher in school. Stories spread throughout the K-8 small-town building about how she’d make you wear your gum on your nose if she caught you chewing.

Besides the contest, I remember only a few things about that year—I learned the clarinet, played Connect Four intensely every day before school, and battled in marbles with older kids (I still have some cat’s eyes and a prized periwinkle marble I loved). There was also a kid Chris in our class who picked his nose so everyone made fun of him.

Miss Ouellette wanted us to improve our skills so she gave us an entire book filled with math crossword puzzles. I always loved figures because of how they lined up so perfectly. I loved that there was only one right answer, and you either got it and received a big red circling C, or you got it wrong and it was fixable. Math is all about certainty and organization at its best. Numbers know what they are doing and you either follow their rules and get 100, or you have points taken away if you are just plain wrong. Math isn’t like writing a haiku or learning about history or answering essay questions—there is no subjectivity in it—and you can be at the top of the class if you get the rules right (well, or if you try more subversive means).

The contest was that whomever finished the puzzle book first would win a Hershey bar.

I tackled this assignment with great gusto. Zipped my way through a good share of problems. But somewhere along the way I became impatient. Figuring out all those problems and filling in the numbers was too tedious—I didn’t have time for things like that. I much preferred building forts in the snow, reading Nancy Drew, and watching our neighbor Glenn, the farmer, feed his cows in the field.

I felt mounting pressure as well from Sharmin and Liza, who were periodically my best friends and periodically my enemies, and Robbie, my first love, all of whom were nearing my page in the book. I could sense my place was being threatened and the Hershey bar getting out of reach. So at some point, I just started filling in squares with random numbers. I varied the numbers enough so they looked real, and I completed all of the puzzles one night when I was home.

I went in the next day to turn in my book. Miss Ouellette, in her polyester pants and comfortable shoes, lit up. It was nice to see her smile. “Good job, Kellie!” she said in her gravely voice (we regularly saw her at Dunkin’ Donuts chain-smoking at the counter on the weekends). She patted me on the shoulder. No gum on my nose. No “you came in second.” No realization that some of the problems were wrong. Only accolades.

I was proud to be the first one done. I took the Hershey bar, and ate it on the playground at recess.

I can still taste that chocolate in my mouth. It was good.

But guilt does have an aftertaste. Now that my brain has a few more neuropathways than I had at 10, I can see the error in my ways. I clearly thought it was more important to win than to have ethics. Ugh. So how do I resolve this terrible guilt?

I have had a few ideas. When my son was born, I sent out Hershey bar birth announcements that said HEREHEIS on the front and his name and weight on the back. My friends and family delighted in being able to enjoy the chocolate and saved the packaging for sentimental reasons.

I have personally visited the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania several times. Rode the Super Dooper Looper and learned how cocoa beans are transformed. Made sure to buy lots of chocolate in the gift shop.

Last year, I purchased stock in Hershey Foods.

Okay, maybe that last part isn’t true.

But clearly, I am trying to make amends. I have a genuine interest in making this right. So, if any of my peers from that dark time in my life want to contact me, I will respond with delight. I will personally send you a cellophane-wrapped six-pack of fresh, sweet chocolate to make it up to you.

Just send me a candygram so I know how to reach you.

And bonus, to make sure I get into heaven, I will send Miss Ouellette a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card. If only I could find her.