The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill, Kool-Aid, and Civil Disobedience: or Reading Can Be a Dangerous Thing

pushcart“The Pushcart War” is one of my all-time favorite books.  For those of you who haven’t read it, get thee to a library or bookstore, and remedy the situation immediately. The book is about the pushcart peddlers in New York City, who become embattled with the Mack Truck drivers who are crowding the streets and blaming the pushcarts for the traffic jams. How the beleaguered little guys join together and beat the big guys with their big trucks is a great story.

I read the book in 5th grade during all the student and racial unrest in the 60s, and it really politicized me, leading to my own petition writing and civil disobedience at school.

The petition was to get rid of our fifth grade teacher after she punished Nancy S. (I guess I won’t name names here) for having a packet of Kool-Aid in her purse. The Kool-Aid thing was a fad at the time: lick your finger and dip it in the Kool-Aid powder and lick it off. People went around with Kool-Aid colored index fingers.

For some reason this bothered our teacher, and she banned Kool-Aid packets in the classroom. One day, for reasons unbeknownst to me, David C. went into Nancy’s desk, into her purse, found a Kool-Aid packet, and ratted her out. Nancy got into trouble, but David did not. Now I was no friend of Nancy’s, who I saw as a snobby rich kid, but I knew that the teacher was punishing her based on illegally obtained evidence. And I felt that David should have been punished for going into her desk and purse and invading her privacy. I have always had strong feelings about fairness, and while I might be shy about sticking up for myself at times, I would never let something like this go by without doing something about it.

Most of the kids in the class signed my petition, including the principal’s daughter, Gretchen, who volunteered to take it to her father. But when my classmates saw how serious I was about this, they chickened out and erased their names from the petition. I was furious and stormed out of the classroom. Gretchen followed me, fluttering around me in dismay, and I turned and punched her in the arm, left the building and walked home, only to be taken back to school by my mother.

My mother was actually proud of me–not for hitting the principal’s daughter or leaving school, but for sticking up for what was right. I got a mild lecture about how the school was responsible for my whereabouts during school hours from the principal and my mother.

And that is how Kool-Aid and The Pushcart War have become linked forever in my mind.

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Filed under ***** A must read, Grades 5 - 6

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