When I was in second grade, I won first place for writing in my school's "Reflections" contest. The theme that year was "I Have a Dream" or something similar. To be honest, I can't remember a single year the theme wasn't some variation on "my greatest wish."
The topic of my original essay was an imagined vacation to Walt Disney World, which was at that time my greatest wish. I had never been on a trip before, and I was obsessed with the idea. My mother told me it would never win. She said I should write that my dream was for my wheelchair-bound dad to be able to walk again. Tearjerkers win, she told me. I was skeptical. I thought it sounded boring and untrue, but she made me a deal: either I would win first place, or she would give me $20. I accepted her challenge. I ended up winning.
My essay went on to compete in the statewide competition, and I came in second. The boy who won first place had a dead father, and his tearjerking dream was to build a telephone to heaven. (Why aim so low, Kevin? Don't you love your dad enough for imagined necromancy?) This was my first experience with winning awards out of pity, but I began to understand the system pretty quickly.
I was invited to Cleveland to read my essay aloud and accept a small trophy at the awards ceremony along with the other winners from across the state. My school's PTA president and vice president wanted to attend as well, each of whom had a child in my class who also wanted to come. We piled into the PTA president's minivan and trekked across the state as a group.
I read my essay and accepted my trophy. Everyone congratulated me and told me I had done a good job, which was pretty much what I lived for. We went back to the hotel to change into casual clothes before finishing off the day with some sightseeing. I had packed what I felt was my most fashionable outfit: an oversized t-shirt with butterflies on it and white capri pants. It was something Stacey from The Babysitter's Club would wear, I'd thought in a satisfied way as I'd packed it. It was too cold for capri pants though, so I wasn't sure what to do. I came out to the main room of the suite where my mother and my friends and their mothers were sitting. When my mother saw my outfit, she got angry. "Is that seriously what you packed?! Did it not occur to you some of us might want to leave the hotel room?!" she yelled. I looked over at my friend Gretchen, dressed sensibly in a new-looking, well-fitting, warm-looking outfit. It was much nicer than my casual wear. I didn't own a thing like it. Why didn't I own a thing like it? Why hadn't I known it would be too cold for capri pants? Gretchen averted her eyes from mine while her mother did her hair and my mother shamed me. I didn't blame her. It was awkward for all of us.
After rifling through my bag and deeming everything I had packed useless and unwearable, my mother instructed me to change back into the clothes I'd worn on the drive across the state the day prior. "This will have to do," she sighed at the well-worn t-shirt my brother had brought me back from a trip to New Mexico and the multicolored paisley parachute pants my mother had bought me because they looked like her own. She went through a phase for a couple years where she wore exclusively wildly colored, patterned rayon pants and bought the same for me.
In hindsight, I think it's impressive I had as many friends as I did, considering how I looked and dressed. My personality must have been sparkling.