From my younger years ...
When I was in third grade, there was a reading program at my school called BookIt. The concept was simple. Read a book, earn a star. Collect enough stars and you receive a certificate to redeem a free small personalized pizza from Pizza Hut. The incentive to read was pizza!
Like many kids my age, we all loved pizza. For my family, pizza was a luxury. BookIt was absolutely the best program I had been introduced to. My family was poor and my parents never had the money to afford a pizza for one yet alone a pizza for a whole family. My sister and I only got to eat pizza for school lunch on some occasions when it was served.
I really liked eating melted cheese. My mom received WIC and she often got blocks of cheddar cheese. I would grate some cheddar cheese and put them on top of pieces of bread and then I would toast them in the oven. I loved watching the cheese melt. Sometimes if we had ketchup I'd smother that on the bread and toss on some cheese and toast in the oven. It was my own little piece of pizza heaven.
I read as many books as the library allowed me to check out. I also read a lot of encyclopedia chapters as well but they didn't count towards a star. I used to wish that my mom would buy the encyclopedias from the sales people that often went door to door, but I knew we didn't have the money. My wishlist was to own my very own encyclopedia set someday when I grew up.
Living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin wasn't the best place to live. I often got bullied when I went to school for being a "chink" and I never had any friends except for one American girl named Trisha. Reading books helped me escape the life I lived in. While kids were taken out of school to go on family vacations, I too wished I could go on a family vacation. But I knew that would not happen. So I read books about far away places and adventures of others. My favorite were Choose Your Own Adventure books. I read as many as I could find. I also went back and re-read them when the adventure was over with, I would start a new one in the same book. Reading made me very happy and it gave me so much hope that I too someday could live the life I've always wanted. I often read past my bed time. Sometimes my mom would come in and scold me for not sleeping because I wanted to read.
It was easy to quickly receive all the stars needed to achieve that BookIt certificate. Pretty soon I was accumulating enough certificates that could feed me and my sisters because I knew just one small pizza would not be enough to feed us.
I remember one special time my sister and I had collected enough certificates for my dad to drive us to the nearest Pizza Hut. They had expiration dates on them so we had to redeem them or lose out. He allowed us take the certificates to the counter and we were so happy to present them to the cashier so that we could obtain our deliciously hot small personalized pizzas. The cashier went to the back and I overheard her laughing and telling a fellow coworker, "Look at the poor chinks using coupons to get free pizzas. They saved all their coupons to feed their family."
As a little girl, hearing this made me very sad. It made me cry because what they said were true. I was saving the certificates because I had earned them. I was planning to use them on my family too, which was also true. After she came out and gave us the pizzas, I accepted them and walked slowly back to the car. My sister was so happy she ate hers quickly. However, still stinging from the hurt I did not eat mines and saved it later for my other siblings to eat at home.
From that time on, I wasn't as passionate about redeeming the BookIt certificates anymore. It wasn't that I stopped loving pizza or that I stopped loving reading. It was on a whole other level about how people perceive others who are poor. I made it a personal decision back then that learning and reading would only be for me. It was not to redeem free pizzas. I learned there was a bigger goal to be achieved that was beyond a quick reward.
My love of learning, reading, and dreaming started with a hope. I loved pizza. I loved BookIt. Most importantly I loved how people could create programs for kids. Especially us kids in poverty who never ever could dream of having something that someone else of privilege could eat too.
BookIt, Pizza Hut ... you bring me such happy and bittersweet tears. Thank you for the life lesson.