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In 1987, when I was an eighth-grade transplant to America and knew nothing of fundraisers or soliciting, our small Christian school held an assembly that captured my attention. A white-haired man, whom I’ll call Don Reagan,* stood in front of the student body and held up a candy bar that he introduced as “World’s Finest Chocolate.” I realized that World’s Finest was actually the brand name, a boast that made me question the quality of the product. He talked of selling the candy, “cases” of it, demonstrating the range of marvelous prizes we could earn. Even one case would get us over the prize-winning threshold. The way Don Reagan talked about it, selling sounded easy. He gave several suggestions for how one could make the sale, even role-playing a scene on a public bus going home from school. But I didn’t need any more convincing–I was in. I would go to the office after school to pick up my cases of chocolate and would soon be enjoying my prizes.
“Cases,” I soon found out, were long, weighty boxes emitting thick cocoa scents. These could be split apart in the middle to make a kind of tote with handles. With the cardboard broken open along the dotted lines, I noted the stacks of bars–there were thirty-six of them, to be precise. I was still convinced that I would make quick work of dispensing the product and collecting the cash. Then I would show up for the promised rewards. The individual bars, each silver-wrapped with white sleeve, red letters emblazoning the claim of global supremacy, were a dollar each. They smelled good and, although perhaps not quite living up to their name, had a flavor of rich, nutty chocolate.
It was decided that my sixth grade sister and I would go door to door in our working-class neighborhood and pretty soon, we’d rid ourselves of these heavy cases in exchange for feather-light dollar bills. Had we canvassed the area with a spiel that demonstrated our genuine confidence in the product based on our own delicious experience with it, we might have been more successful. But we had never undertaken such a project before. Possibly our only tool, besides the bare facts of our mission, was the plastic enthusiasm modeled by Don Reagan, who was probably sick of that candy.
My sister and I were educated in our first few encounters with the public. We learned quickly that thirty-six was a lot of candy bars in one case, and that we had been overconfident in the number of cases we had planned to sell. Maybe we could sell one case? If that. We also found that at least in principle, people didn’t want strangers coming to their doors selling random stuff while they were relaxing in their homes. That there was something called “soliciting,” and neighbors displayed signs that said “NO” to that. We also found it challenging to explain our enterprise to those that peeped around their metal security doors in answer to our ring. When it was my sister’s turn to talk, she gave the pitch whilst grabbing opposite ankles behind her, first one leg and then the other. They don’t teach you that technique at sales school. She always ended her speech with, “Would you be intrested?” Our efforts took courage, and made demands of us outside of our experience and comfort level, but we were two motivated girls.
We returned home sadly not empty-handed, having sold a small handful of product, maybe five or six bars. No one had been rude to us–a little world-weary, perhaps, and often not “intrested,” but kind enough in an indifferent way. One smiling older gentleman said something puzzling. I remember it as being in an English accent: he would like to have us come by, he told us, at least to see our song and dance again. But despite a few successes, we realized that it would take ages of hard work to get rid of those stacks of neatly wrapped chocolates. In days following, we made more forays into the neighborhood, but with our ambitions greatly tempered by reality. And we turned in the boxes we didn’t sell. I don’t think we qualified for a single prize, not even a Slinky or a Rubik’s Cube, after all that.
I told my mom the story of the polite older man and his odd speech to us. “Why would he say that?” I asked her. “We didn’t do any singing or dancing.” Bemused, my mom explained that he had used an expression that meant a kind of memorized sequence. He was referring to our sales pitch. Oh. I had been confused because, in my mind, our sales patter was as far from music and dance as my sister and I were from the likelihood of winning that Walkman (only twenty cases!)
*Last I checked, Don Reagan was still coming to the school once a year and inspiring eighth-graders to hit the streets with this delectable product. However, now World’s Finest offers an item wrapped in gold and green called “Mint Meltaways,” which indeed live up to their name.Published in