When I was a third-grader at Ocean City Elementary School, the fifth-graders were involved in a program called Accelerated Reader. AR (We never called it that, but I'll do it now.) worked like this: A bunch of books were on the AR list, and they were each assigned points based on the complexity of their content and vocabulary. Mr. Popper's Penguins would be rated 3 points versus Moby Dick, which was 42. (I thought Moby Dick was worth more than that, but that's from the current list. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is worth 44, which seems bogus.) After reading a book from the list, a student would sign into a computer program, and take a 20-question test based on the book. Based on their percentage of correct answers, they would be awarded points, which could then be used at the school's AR store to buy like pencils and shit. This was strictly a fifth grade thing.
Until one day I was asked to go down to Mr. Gibbons' fifth grade classroom to see him about something. Acclaimed four square guru, Mr. Gibbons explained the program to me, and asked if I'd like to try it out. I obliged and read Mr. Popper's Penguins. I took the test, aced it, and got 3 points. I started reading more books and taking more tests. I started reading Moby Dick, but when I reached page 200 and they weren't even on the boat yet, I lost my desire to see the Great White Whale. The fifth-graders began recommending me novels to read. "Has a book ever made you cry?" "No," I said, adding because I'm not a wuss in my head. "Read Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Red Fern Grows." I read both. I think I tried to force myself to cry. Their plan to extend AR into other grades appeared to be working, at least with me. My two best friends were then asked to participate. By the end of the year, it was school-wide. And at the end of the year, I had 122 points, the fourth most in the school.
Fourth grade was a rough year for me. My teacher was evil, and it took the majority of the nighttime hours to complete her homework to my liking. I also became interested in girls and music more, which are both cooler than books. I still believe this to be true. I got like 36 points or so, enough for a t-shirt. Hell, the fat kid, Justin Rupp, even had more points than me. It was okay though 'cause I still got straight E's (same as A's).
Fifth grade came around, and I was now really in Mr. Gibbons' class. When I wasn't learning the astonishing four square moves that I continue to use to this day, I was reading, determined to get the most points in the school. Dr. Scott, the principal, even challenged us: If the school earned 5000 points, he would don a 1930s bathing suit, jump into a pool of chocolate pudding, and sing "I'm a Little Teapot." (That's totally true.) So I read. And kept on reading. I got the most points in the school at 286, for which I was awarded a plaque and a lifetime membership to the Dork Club. The paper thermometer burst out the top, we learned "I'm a Little Teapot" in band, and Dr. Scott followed through on his promise. And wouldn't you know it? The top reader in each class got a can of whipped cream to spray on him. It was a delightful, food-wasting mess. We had the coolest custodial technician in the world, Mr. Smack, to clean it up. What made him so cool? I used to think it was just 'cause he was really nice, but now I think it's because he was allowed to wear a hat in school.
I had a habit of saving up my points until the end of the year, and then go on an Accelerated Reader store shopping spree. Unfortunately, most of the cool stuff was always gone by then and I'd end up with Miss Piggy notepads and erasers that didn't erase. Like so many that I'm still using them 14 years later. So they felt bad that I was reading so much, and had nothing but stupid crap to offer me. What did I need a bookmark for if I didn't stop reading? So they created three new purchases, essentially just for me: For 50 points, I could be principal for half a day. For 40, I could be gym teacher for half a day. For 35, librarian. I was principal once and gym teacher twice. Librarian seemed a waste, even to the best reader in the school.
Obviously, every child wants to be principal of their school. I got to read the morning announcements, which was a thrill, and I suppose the start of my voiceover career. Then I got to accompany Dr. Scott on his rounds of the school, stopping in each classroom to observe that the curriculum was being followed, or at least to show off my celebrity status to the entire student body. That was cool. Then I went back to Dr. Scott's office, where he pulled out a large plastic Ocean Spray bottle that had been refilled with water. "My doctor said I should drink 8 glasses a day," he explained. I nodded, confused. He then moved over to a smaller desk with a computer on it. "This is what I do as principal. Right now I'm proofreading a letter to send out to parents." Is this a joke? Nope. He quietly read the document and made his corrections. What a downer. When I went back to class for that second half of the day, the questions charged at me like a stampede: "How was it?" "What was the office like?" "Did you like reading the announcements?" Of course, I oversold my temporary post: "It was magnificent."
What a reality check. I think that's when I decided I didn't want to be a teacher anymore. If this was the daily existence of the head of a school's administration, one who earned a doctorate degree, no less, what would a normal teacher's life be like? Principals and vice principals of elementary schools did not lead the glamourous life we all assumed they did. I could've just looked back to first grade for confirmation, though. The vice principal, Mrs. Bassett, drove me in her car when I won third prize in the Assateague Island Poster Contest, and her car wasn't even amazing. When it turned into a plane, the wings didn't even come all the way out.