The Great 5th Grade Pickle Race

By Susan Kawa

My son came home from kindergarten breathless with excitement yesterday. I got him calmed down long enough to hear his story by feeding him some Girl Scout cookies (I'm sure you're familiar with their calming effect on kids).

Anyhow, the source of his excitement, it seemed, was his proximity to the END of his red workbook. Only 8 pages to go!

Well, this WAS something to celebrate! The darn thing was about 80 pages, which practically qualifies as "War and Peace" to a 6-year-old. Clearly, excitement is subjective.

I asked him, as adults are wont to do, "What's next?"

His reply: "A PURPLE workbook!"

A purple workbook. And after the purple workbook, I can only presume: a blue one. It stopped me in my tracks. Here, a kid I have to bribe to EAT is thrilled and motivated by the prospect of MORE work.

I can only blame this incredulity on my age. We adults think kids are motivated by the same things that motivate US: money, power, pictures of Pierce Brosnan, and chocolate. But, no. In order to successfully bribe a child, you have to completely throw logic to the wind.

One of the best examples of this strategy, which I shamelessly dredge up from my past, is the infamous "Great Pickle Race."

When I was in the 5th grade, my teacher, Ms. Mountz, created a classroom contest of such cleverness and artistry that none of us seemed fazed by the fact that the PRIZE for first place was a medium sized jar of dill pickles. In fact, each of us coveted that jar of pickles with a white-hot intensity that practically hinted at puberty.

The Great Pickle Race was a list of 100 difficult questions, posted prominently by a large grid of names and numbers. The questions spanned mathematics, history, literature, and popular culture, and ranged in difficulty from (5th grade terminology) "cinch-a-rooney" to "huh?"

Each response was submitted on a special slip of paper, on which we copied the question, our answer, and detailed how and where we FOUND the answer, in bibliography format. If we were particularly clever, we also remembered to sign our name, so that we'd get appropriate credit. Correct responses were noted on the giant chart by solidly blocking out the correct corresponding square beside our name. In green ink (if you can believe I remember that).

The student who successfully answered all 100 questions WON the Great Pickle Race.

I was possessed.

It dragged on for weeks, because many of the questions were pretty darn hard and required trips to the adult section of the library - a terrifying adventure for a 10-year-old, but worth it considering I had a vendetta against Doug Myers.

He stole all the credit you see, when our science team made a robot out of a shoebox. It didn't walk around or anything, but it DID have some blinky lights, and actual batteries inside, and didn't just rely on the glued-on silver painted permanent hair rollers for it's charm. At any rate, I wasn't about to let him rob me of that jar of pickles, on top of the robot incident.

We were neck-and-neck for most of it. And in the end, we puzzled over the very same last and hardest question of them all. Number 83: "Which goddess dressed her son as a woman to prevent him from having to fight in the Trojan War?" (I told you they were hard.)

Unfortunately, I had to accept defeat in the end and watch those pickles go to my nemesis, Mr. Myers. I was crestfallen, as only a 10-year-old can be.

Believe it or not, I continued to search for the answer to question 83 for over 23 YEARS before I happened upon it (God bless the Internet). So if you think I'm just going to go and tell you folks the answer, you're out of your minds. Look it up for goodness sake! (She cackles wickedly.)

To sum it up (does seem to be about that time, doesn't it?), it just goes to show - bribing kids with money or promises of dessert is a waste of, well, good money and good chocolate. Offer them the useless, and they'll move a mountain. I wonder what I can get out of him for a broken carburetor?

Susan Kawa is a wife, mother, and freelance writer. More of her essays can be read at

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