Yesterday the Catholic school in my parents’ St. Paul neighborhood had a “care-a-thon,” which excited my mother when Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer’s sister-in-law was one of the leaders of the group of kids who showed up to rake leaves. A “care-a-thon,” it seemed to me, was a notable improvement on the traditional Catholic school marathon, in which I was compelled to participate each year from kindergarten through eighth grade.
For one thing, our “marathons” were never really marathons—or even anything close to marathons. For another, they required us to solicit friends and family members to pony up cash in support of us slogging around the block, invariably (it seemed) in the cold rain. There was a fiction that some of our pledgers were paying us by the lap: they would toss another dime in to Our Lord’s piggy bank for every time we shuffled around the block and past the door of His most holy outpost in all of Duluth.
There was a time when I was a champ at Catholic school fundraising, and that time was when I didn’t even know I was doing it. When I was in kindergarten, my dad must have taken my pledge sheet to work or something, because at the all-school assembly honoring each grade’s most successful marathoners, I was shocked to hear my name called as the most scrilla-scrounging student in either morning or afternoon kindergarten. I stumbled forward into the spotlight as if in a dream and took awestruck receipt of the gilded plastic cup that represented half of my spoils. The other half was a prize to be chosen from among an array of school-branded goods spread before me by my teacher; I made the mistake of touching a sun visor out of curiosity, not realizing that the merest touch would be taken to represent my selection.
Still, I was a champion. The champion. I walked home to show the trophy to my mother, my chest nearly exploding from my pride in the fundraising I hadn’t even known I’d done. She was proud and happy, but didn’t burst into tears and order a high-security vitrine for the trophy’s display as I’d hoped she would.
Though I never again came close to earning such a distinction for my marathon-related fundraising (three younger siblings hitting up the same rellies for the same reason will really harsh your mellow), I acquitted myself well when, in sixth grade, the kids in my class were sent home one day carrying huge trash bags full of packaged off-brand lightbulbs—yes, lightbulbs—that we were meant to sell as a fundraiser for our nature camp sleepaway.
Maybe to avoid thinking about the unpleasant reality that I’d have to spend two full nights bunking in the great outdoors, I threw myself into the bulb-selling campaign with vigor. I composed an entire speech to deliver at each door I approached: “Why would you give money for a school marathon? You don’t get anything out of that! And why would you buy Girl Scout Cookies? They’re full of saturated fat! But lightbulbs? Everyone needs lightbulbs. Why, at this discount price? Delivered right to your door? I’m saving you time and money! Oh, and did I mention this discount coupon for more lightbulbs printed right here on the package?”
The monologue was such a hit that for months to come, my parents would ask me to perform it at family gatherings for everyone’s entertainment. There’s even video documentation, somewhere in the family archives, of me standing on our muddy lawn that spring in sweatpants and high-tops, selling nonexistent lightbulbs after the fundraiser ended. In the actual fundraiser, my greatest triumph was almost selling a package to the guy who owned the neighborhood hardware store. (Almost.)
Three years later, I hit the wall—and the complete end of my patience with Catholic school fundraisers.
St. Agnes High School has a long-running fundraiser that involves selling World’s Finest Chocolate Bars. The fundraiser is associated with Homecoming: each class elects a “princess,” who then selects an “escort” (if you think that’s awkward, bear in mind that the school newspaper is called the St. Agnes Hi-Times). The class that sells the most candy bars per capita sees their princess rise to queendom, on the arm of a football player elected by (natch) the other football players to serve as Homecoming King. (I know, right? My senior class were so glad to be done with that B.S. that we chose Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” as our homecoming song, and sang it out loud like a stadium full of baseball fans watching the opposing team’s pitcher walk off the field.)
But back to freshman year. I walked out to the truck where the candy bars were being off-loaded, and the guy in the truck asked me how many I wanted. “I dunno,” I said. “Ten?”
“Whoa!” He seemed impressed. “This kid wants ten!” He then lifted five boxes, each containing 36 bars. “Here are the first five, and…”
“Hang on,” I said. “I meant ten bars, not ten boxes.”
“Well, kid!” He looked disgusted. “Don’t you know the minimum is four boxes?”
Each year I somehow managed to sell my bare minimum of 144 candy bars—with most being purchased by my parents, when I collapsed in despair on the last day of the sale each year having only sold a few dozen bars. I didn’t even want to be associated with the sale of those bars. Once, I took my brother—then a cherubic five-year-old—to the grocery store and made him sell the bars for me. Everyone would buy from a cute kid, I figured. What happened in reality was that Joey stood in front of the doors holding a box of chocolate bars and looking miserable while I lurked creepily behind the empty milk crates. No one bought any candy bars, and I decided we’d better leave before someone called Child Protection.
I bought a lot of the bars myself, which made me triply mad because (a) I was supporting the very school that put me through all that crap, (b) I needed the money for things like golf balls and Bruce Springsteen CDs, and (c) I was sick of going to the school uniform supply store each year and having the lady with the tape measure yell to the back of the store, “We’ve got a hefty!”
Despite all this, in those days I believed in God—the Catholic God. One day when I really wanted something to happen—I don’t know what, but it probably involved God making it rain so I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn—I promised God that I would put ten dollars in the collection basket at Mass if He made this thing happen. In all His wisdom and generosity, He did—so I was on the hook for ten bucks. I thought about this, and brought a theological question to my art teacher.
“Mr. Tebbutt,” I asked, “if I promised God I’d donate ten dollars to the church if He made something happen and then He actually did make it happen, do you think He’d think it was okay if I spent it buying World’s Finest Chocolate Bars to support St. Agnes instead of just dropping it on the collection plate?”
Mr. Tebbutt—the kind of cool teacher who’d wonder aloud why the lockers were painted “shit brown” and show us documentaries about My Lai instead of Lourdes—looked uncomfortable. “I guess,” he said, “I wouldn’t get in the habit of making deals with the Almighty.”
I bought the candy bars. I haven’t been smote…yet.