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How to Win Friends and Influence People

By Steve Watkins

Several kids crowded around me in the restroom at Riverside Elementary School. It was probably fifth grade, so sometime in the mid-1960s. I’d gone in to pee after recess or lunch and assumed that’s why those other kids were there, too. 

One of them held up a small, dark jar filled with some nasty-looking stuff. He shook it like a snow globe. “You know what this is?” he asked me. The other kids were already laughing.

I tried to play along, tried to act as though this was all just a game we played with one another, us kids. “Hunh-unh.”

“It’s Stevenitis,” he said. “And if any of it gets on you, you die.”

My cheeks burned, all of me did, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to disappear. Move to a new town. Be anywhere else forever.

They’d been doing the Stevenitis thing for a while. They said you got it if I touched you, or if you bumped into me, or if you picked up something I’d been holding. Now they were upping their game, saying they’d distilled Stevenitis in that jar for everybody to see. They said the smell alone could put a kid in the hospital.

The bell rang. We all went back to Mr. Cheeley’s class, them in a bunch, me lagging behind, hoping to slip into my seat unnoticed. Not that I could ever make myself invisible. Not for long, anyway. I had too many weird habits and compulsions for that. Too great a need for validation from teachers.

I was the kid who was always raising his hand in class and saying I knew the answers, even when I didn’t. The nose picker. The kid who had a hard time reading social cues. The kid who tried too hard to make friends.

And I was the kid who rode his bike home by himself after school, then hid in the bathroom and cried and swore I wasn’t ever going back. When I finally came out—usually because my brother was banging on the door and telling me to flush already because he had to use the bathroom, too—I got lost in one of the five or six books I was always reading at any given time, or went outside to play in the field beside our house, because even if you were me, even if at school there were Stevenitis and myriad other cruelties and all that self-blame, I was still a part of the neighborhood, which meant I got included when they divided up for teams, even if I suffered the trifecta of being too small, too weak, and too slow. 

I told that story at the dinner table the other night to my wife, Janet, and one of our daughters. I’d written a fictionalized version of it years ago in a semi-autobiographical novel, Down Sand Mountain, but I guess I’d never shared the actual story with them. I could see it on their faces: sympathy, anger, maybe even horror. Janet said she wished she could go back in time to beat those kids’ asses. Claire reached across the table and held my hand.

I said the things you say—it’s all good; it was a long time ago; at least I got a lot of good material out of it; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; who gives a shit about any of it now? The usual nonsense. I said I wondered whatever became of those guys, though I really don’t. I said I wondered how they had justified doing what they did, or if it had even bothered them in the first place. I said I wondered how people like that lived with themselves. 

I knew the answers already, of course. We all do. People can justify pretty much anything. Those kids probably thought I deserved it. Hell, they probably thought they’d let me off easy, and some of them got it a lot worse themselves in their own homes.

But none of that helped me then. Reading, imagination, my delusional tendencies were what got me through those painful years. I was the least athletic of all the boys in school—and the girls, too, the ones who didn’t mind getting sweaty during recess and P.E. But I still spent countless hours trying to decide whether I wanted to be a professional football player or a professional baseball player when I grew up—never mind that I hated physical contact, especially the kind that hurt or got you dirty. And I couldn’t catch a fly ball to save my life.

As long as my brother, Wayne, was around—one grade ahead of me all the way through school—I had a measure of protection, though I knew he was embarrassed by me and my weird ways, and I’d been too ashamed to tell him about the Stevenitis. When he left Riverside Elementary to start seventh grade at the high school, I had to face sixth grade on my own. Even to delusional me, sports were clearly not the answer, so what I decided to do, thinking for no good reason that it would somehow raise my social standing, was volunteer to be a School Boy Patrol. 

Training consisted of the school secretary showing us a black and white safety film that ended with the story of a courageous School Boy Patrol who sacrificed himself by diving into a busy street to push an errant child out of the path of a speeding car. The film said they made a memorial for him—the dead School Boy Patrol, not the kid he died to save—and for weeks after that I fantasized about saving somebody’s life, too. I would be a hero, and get a ton of sympathy, even if I was dead. Especially if I was dead.

But the little kids at Riverside Elementary were too cautious, and nobody ever crossed the street when they weren’t supposed to, and there was never much traffic in our small mining town anyway. So I never got my chance to be a School Boy Patrol hero. Until one day a girl named Carolyn Moore came to school with no shoes on, a clear violation of the Riverside dress code, such as it was. I went straight to the principal’s office to report her to Mr. Ward, expecting to be rewarded for taking a righteous stand for public decency, but instead was told that he would speak to Carolyn about coming to school barefoot, and that I should have stayed where I’d been assigned at the corner of Sixth Street and Kunkle. 

Later that morning, Mr. Ward took Carolyn to the store and bought her a new pair of shoes. I couldn’t believe it. Instead of being punished, she was the one being rewarded! It wasn’t until I got home that afternoon and told my mom about it that she straightened me out. “Carolyn’s family is poor,” she explained. “Sometimes they don’t have money for things those of us more fortunate take for granted. Like shoes.”

“But I wear Wayne’s hand-me-downs,” I said, as if that would get me off the hook for not being a good Christian, though I knew better.

Not long after that, Mr. Ward called a meeting of the School Boy Patrol and told us we needed to elect a captain. Oddly—oddly to me, anyway—nobody seemed interested. So I whispered to a kid who I thought of as sort of a friend—it might have been Freddy Harden, or maybe Chris Woodyard—that he should nominate me, which he did. Mr. Ward wrote my name down, then asked if there were any other nominations. I named another kid. It was an election, after all, and that’s how democracies were supposed to work. You had to have somebody running against you or it didn’t count as a real election. We had a secret ballot, and I made sure to write the other kid’s name down so he’d get at least my one vote, maybe two if he voted for himself, which you really shouldn’t do.

The vote was unanimous for the other kid.

I tried to act as if I hadn’t really wanted to be captain, but I doubt anybody believed me. It was bad enough knowing I couldn’t get elected, even worse finding out that even kids I thought of as sort of friends would vote for somebody, anybody, but me.


One night later that sixth-grade year they had a parent-teacher night at school, and Mr. Ward brought his son. The parents crowded into the classrooms for conferences with the teachers. They had sheet cake and cookies and Kool-Aid in the lunchroom. It was autumn, and starting to get cool in Central Florida. Kids were allowed to run around outside in the field next to the school. Riverside Elementary was surrounded on three sides by cow pastures, so we were literally fenced in. 

I was standing by myself watching the other kids when Mr. Ward’s son come over and stood next to me. He said, “Hey,” and I said, “Hey.” He asked me what was my name and what grade was I in. I told him, and asked him the same things, and pretty soon we started talking about stuff. Movie monsters, dinosaurs, digging tunnels. It turned out we had a lot of shared interests. We walked around some in the field after awhile, me and him, still just talking, ignoring the rest of the kids running around yelling and screaming. I thought he would go join them, but he never did. He seemed to just want to be with me. I couldn’t believe it. He was the coolest kid I’d ever met. He might have even been wearing a turtleneck. We hung out the whole rest of the night, eventually joining in with the other kids but sticking together—playing hide and seek, making sure to unfreeze each other in freeze tag, going back for illegal seconds and thirds of cake and cookies and Kool-Aid. Hours went by. The parents must have been schmoozing in the cafeteria. It got dark. I kept waiting for him to recognize me for who I was, but word about the Stevenitis didn’t seem to have made its way up to Lakeland where he and his dad lived and where he went to school. 

When the evening finally ended, I begged my dad to let me stay longer and keep hanging out with Mr. Ward’s son, my new best friend in the world. And I was pretty sure I was his new best friend, too. Not some random kid he’d partnered up with on a boring parent-teacher night at a hick school in a hick mining town where his dad happened to be the principal. My dad said no, it was time to go, maybe five more minutes. As I remember it, me and Mr. Ward’s son ran off one last time and hid until they found us and we had to say goodbye.

I felt sure Mr. Ward’s son was as heartbroken about having to separate as I was. His dad drove a Porsche, of all things—a Porsche!—and I can still picture them climbing in and zooming away for the 20-mile trip back to Lakeland. Me and Dad got in our Rambler station wagon and drove home, too.

I never saw Mr. Ward’s son again, but I never forgot about him. Even all these years later, I remember that night, and me and him being best pals for those couple of hours, and how I got to feel cool because he was cool and he’d chosen to hang out with me of all people. For that one glorious night, it was a world without Stevenitis. A world where I wouldn’t have to die as a School Boy Patrol hero just to get somebody, anybody, to like me.


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Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, two of which are forthcoming in 2024. His author website is