I was eleven years old when I learned a secret that continues to shape my life and challenge me.
Back in 1961, I was in Sister Clareen’s sixth grade class at Our Lady of Sorrows School. It was almost dismissal time one day when Sister reached into her big wooden desk and pulled out an object about as long as a twelve-inch ruler, but much thicker.
Sister Clareen held up the thing. Its white wrapper said “World’s Finest Chocolate.” Then she began walking up and down the rows of desks, gliding like she always did, as if she were on ball bearings, her long black habit floating behind her. While she walked, she waved the thing in front of each kid’s nose.
When Sister reached me, I detected a whiff of something chocolaty like a Giant bar, but better. The scent seeped through the wrapping paper – a deep chocolate fragrance I could almost taste, so strong that I couldn’t smell the starch of Sister’s habit.
“It’s a milk chocolate bar, chock full of almonds,” she said. “We’re going to raffle it off.”
I had no idea what a raffle was. Sister explained, “For two cents, you may buy a chance on winning one section of this candy bar. If I draw your name, you win.” She opened the wrapper so we could behold the bar’s chunky glory: about a foot long and two inches high. On its short ends, it looked like a pyramid with its top cut off.
Milk chocolate, I thought. I like milk chocolate. And almonds. I was pretty sure I liked almonds. Two cents. I had two pennies to buy a pretzel stick at our school store. Hmmm…pretzel stick or chocolate?
The decision was made easier by that intoxicating scent. I put my two cents into Sister Clareen’s basket, along with my name on a slip of paper.
As Sister split the bar into six pieces, the smell of chocolate overcame the smell of chalk in our classroom. The six large chunks perched on the top of her desk, each on a napkin. She drew the first name, then the second…I had my hopes up…. She drew the third, and fourth, and fifth…I was losing hope.
But the sixth draw was my name. The joy of winning was only surpassed by the delight of biting into that marvelous bar. It was a sensory burst – first, inhaling the scent as I tasted the creamy chocolate, then a wonderful crunch when I hit an almond. Now I knew for sure I liked almonds…I loved almonds!
As we six winners chomped on our bits of candy bar and the other 44 kids in our class looked on with big eyes, Sister Clareen said, “We are selling these candy bars to raise money for our school. Every one of you may take five candy bars and you are responsible for selling them for fifty cents each.”
Fifty cents! Most candy bars cost a nickel, even those Giant bars that I loved. How would I ever sell a bar for fifty cents?
Feeling doubtful, I took my five allotted candy bars.
That evening at the supper table, I told Mum and Pop about the candy bars.
Mum reacted quickly. “Fifty cents? Let me see one of them.”
I knew she loved chocolate, but she was thrifty. I ran into my room, where I had left my school bag. I zipped open the bag, causing an explosion of the heavenly scent. Now my whole bedroom smelled like the world’s finest chocolate.
I brought a bar into the kitchen and handed it to Mum. She immediately brought it to her nose.
“I’ll buy it,” she said.
“Can we eat it now?” asked my brother Danny.
“For dessert,” Mum answered.
The chocolate smell wafted around our kitchen as we returned to our plates. I never saw meat loaf polished off so fast.
When the last bite of supper had been devoured, it was time. Mum opened the wrapper and snapped the bar into its six big chunks, one for each of us. It was quiet except for the sounds of our munching.
Then Pop asked me, “When are you going to start selling?”
“I guess tomorrow after school,” I said.
“You know what to ask people, don’t you?”
“You don’t ask them ‘Do you want any?’… You ask them ‘Do you want one or two?’”
“Oh, yeah. You told me that when I was selling Girl Scout cookies.”
“And you sold 78 boxes,” Pop reminded me.
“And I sold 78 boxes,” I echoed.
“The worst thing they can say is ‘no,’” Pop said, a twinkle in his eye.
“The worst thing they can say is ‘no,’” I echoed again.
I was used to Pop’s pep talks. He was a salesman for Gerber Baby Foods, and to him, salesmanship was a job of honor. “You have to believe in what you’re selling,” he always said.
Well, I believed in Girl Scout cookies. But I couldn’t tell Pop that I never had the nerve to ask “Do you want one or two?”. Girl Scout cookies sold themselves because everyone knew what to expect; we sold the same daisy-shaped sugar cookies every year. All I had to do was knock on enough doors to sell 78 boxes.
I believed in World’s Finest bars, too; but I wondered if I could sell 78 of them.
After school the next day, I was ready. Reminding myself, 78 bars, I took my four remaining candy bars and set out. The first three sold fast and easy, even though none of my neighbors had ever heard of a candy bar so large or so expensive. I think the smell of chocolate got to them.
I had only one more bar to sell. I rang the doorbell. A man answered.
“Hi, I’m selling candy bars for Our Lady of Sorrows School,” I said. I held up the bar, showing the back of the wrapper that said “Our Lady of Sorrows School” alongside a black and white photo of our pastor, Father Schweitzer.
“I’m Lutheran,” the man said, and shut the door quickly.
The lady in the next house told me she loved chocolate. It was an easy sell.
That evening I told my parents about the man who shut the door in my face. Pop started laughing.
I squinched my eyes at him. “You said the worst thing they could say was ‘no.’”
Before Pop could reply, Mum spoke. “You should have told him that the chocolate tastes as good if you’re Catholic or Lutheran.”
Pop laughed again.
I knew I’d never have the nerve to say something like that, any more than I could ask “Do you want one or two?”.
The next day I took five more candy bars to sell. And the day after. And the day after. I sold a lot of chocolate for Our Lady of Sorrows that year, although I never reached my goal of 78.
It’s been a long time since my days of Girl Scout cookies and World’s Finest Chocolate bars, but the secret I learned then has always helped me. The secret was: think positive.
My dad - and selling candy bars - taught me five things about thinking positive:
1. I need to keep goals few and realistic. I might have sold 78 candy bars, but I always knew that I might not. That was okay with me.
2. I need to consider new ideas - like selling a mutant-sized candy bar that cost ten times more than a normal one.
3. I need to ignore negativity. I can survive a door being slammed in my face.
4. I need to keep trying. If one person says “no,” another might say “yes.”
5. And like Pop said, I have to believe.