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Matters of Life and Steph: “Cool as a Cucumber”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

One of Warren Buffett’s most famous quotes (via Benjamin Graham) is, “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.”

It’s interesting to think about what we value, particularly at different points in our lives. When I was in kindergarten, I’m pretty sure that I valued two things: recess and having people to play with at recess. (Yes, I’m leaving out the basic needs for survival and other important psychological factors; but from my five-year-old perspective, physical activity and friendship were at the heart of my existence.)

I do have one distinct memory about value that has stuck with me since kindergarten. It happened during snack time.

T, a boy in my class whom I was friends with, proposed a snack trade that I had second thoughts about.

What concerned me about this sketchy snack swap was that perhaps I wasn’t making a fair trade with T. This experience led me to the life lesson that I learned: provided there’s no physical harm involved, listen to a person’s wants and desires. Either help them achieve what it is that they want or avoid getting in their way. Not everyone values things the same way you do.

So let me tell you what happened…

Hot stuff

Each month, the school sent home a copy of their lunch menu. As soon as we got this precious printout, my sister and I gathered around the kitchen table to study what the cafeteria would be serving over the next month. This document —which we prominently posted on the refrigerator next to our report cards and drawings—would determine whether we would bring a “cold lunch” from home or buy a “hot lunch” at school.

I would only buy hot lunch  when hot dogs, hamburgers, anything pizza (squares, rolls, etc.), or spaghetti and meatballs were served. Otherwise, I’d bring my lunch from home and buy a tiny carton of milk at school for ten cents.

On special days, when Graham Frosties were served, I was allowed to buy one. Graham Frosties were, by far, the best thing the cafeteria prepared—provided you didn’t have a peanut allergy (they’re made with peanut butter).

My nutritiously-minded mother didn’t object to this approach. Given that I only liked four basic menu offerings, odds were stacked against me buying hot lunches. Instead, I usually ate a rolling rotation of peanut butter (no jelly), bologna and ketchup, or tuna fish sandwiches.

In addition to lunch, we also brought our own daily snack. Although I didn’t mind bringing a lunch, I didn’t like snack time.

Too cucumbersome

I despised snack time.   

Every day, when snack time came around, I was forced to listen to the crinkle of chip bags, the crackling of plastic unwrapping sweet, packaged treats, and the sticky tearaway sound of fruit roll-ups being unfurled. Without even having to look, I knew that my snack wouldn’t have a crinkle, crackle, or tear.

My snacks were the kind that spoiled or rotted if they were left out too long; they most certainly couldn’t sit on a shelf for months. My snacks didn’t come in packs of five. My snacks were often cut, sliced, diced, or peeled. My snacks were the kind most children dreaded when it came to food: they were nutritious.

I always ate my snack as quickly as possible to avoid the intense scrutiny that I believe came with a child who brought non-processed foods. In retrospect, this was likely an incorrect assumption. I’m sure no one cared, even if I did.

On the day of the snack swap that inspired this blog, there was nothing unusual or different about my snack. But the events that transpired during snack time most certainly were.

As I pulled out the Ziploc bag that contained my snack, I feasted my eyes on a generously sized, exquisitely peeled cucumber.  Yup. I had a cucumber for a snack.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like cucumbers just fine. Love them in a salad. Don’t mind them as part of a part of a sandwich. And if this were a romantic comedy, a cucumber would be a great thing to put on my eyes during a spa scene where I complain about my job or my love life.

But a cucumber as a kindergartener’s snack? Awwww, heck no.

A sweet dill

Still, I was hungry. Without any other options, I was going to eat that darn cucumber. But before I could gobble my cucumber down, T came by. 

T was a nice boy with a round head, slightly larger than average. He had an easy laugh and an unruly mop of floppy brown hair that somehow always looked messy.

I recall during wintertime, T had a perennial red ring of chapped skin around his mouth because he constantly licked his lips. Still, T was a friendly kid who talked to just about anybody.

I remember on the day of the snack swap, T was wearing a brown striped shirt with orange and blue, and a pair of brown pants. How did I remember this, you might be asking? Well, his outfit reminded me of the clothing that Bert, a character from “Sesame Street,” wore. Except T’s shirt had horizontal, rather than Bert’s vertical stripes. (While I may not be good with names, I have always remembered odd details about people. Makes for a better story, right?)

“Whatcha got there?” T asked me. I instinctively hid the cucumber behind my back.

I was prepared to keep my cucumber hidden, but T craned his neck to see what I had for snack. That was weird. Better get this over with, I thought to myself.

“It’s a cucumber,” I said, holding out the Ziploc bag for T to confirm. My Ziploc-bagged cucumber looked like evidence from a crime scene. Exhibit C, I guess you could say.

“Mmm, that looks good. Do you wanna trade?” T held up a large bag of caramel popcorn. I could hardly believe my eyes. He could’ve been holding up a bag of chocolate-covered ants for all I cared. No one, and I mean no one, had ever offered to trade their snack with me.

In a pickle

But trade a cucumber for a bag of caramel popcorn? That didn’t seem like a fair snack swap. Not even close. What could T possibly want with a cucumber when he had sugary sweet caramel popcorn? 

“The cucumber doesn’t have any salt on it.” I didn’t want T to think there was anything special about the cucumber. “It’s just a plain cucumber.”

“That’s OK. I’ll take it.” What was T’s endgame? Was he going to tease me? Play catch with the cucumber at recess? I simply couldn’t wrap my head around why he would have any interest in the cucumber.

Still, I really wanted his caramel popcorn. The thought of the sticky caramel’s crunch and the softness of the popcorn made my mouth water.

“Are you really sure?” As much as I wanted T’s caramel popcorn, I couldn’t help but feel like T was getting a raw deal. Literally, since I had an actual plain cucumber.

T held out his bag of caramel popcorn. In my head, I said “Going once, twice, three times, sold” as quickly as possible to give T one final out. Then I handed over my cucumber.

“Thanks!” T said as he bounded away.

Full of vin-regret

All these years later, I haven’t forgotten about the snack swap with T. 

Reflecting back, I think the snack swap had such a big impact on me because acting with integrity is something that’s important to me. I didn’t want people to think I had tricked or swindled T into trading his popcorn for my cucumber. In my eyes, T and I didn’t really have a fair trade.

It turns out, it doesn’t really matter what I thought about T’s side of the bargain.

Having taken a couple of economics classes in college (translation: I’m a total expert!), I know that a trade involves an agreement between the individuals making the exchange. When there is no obligation to trade, the transaction occurs once each party believes they will be better off as a result. In other words, each person in the trade feels that they have traded for something of value to them.

Although it’s too late to ask T now, perhaps he valued the cucumber’s refreshing taste. Or maybe he had a positive association with something cucumber-related. While I don’t know what T’s reason was, something caused him to want my cucumber more than his caramel popcorn.

And that’s the thing. T valued my cucumber, and I valued his sugary, non-nutritious snack. Ultimately, since both of us knew what we were getting, it was an even trade. As hard as it was for me to believe.

And here’s the irony: In the end, T probably ended up better off with the cucumber. After a few bites of the caramel popcorn, a kernel got wedged in one of my teeth. As deliciously sweet as the popcorn was, it wasn’t worth having a sharp piece of food stuck in my tooth the rest of the day.

As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. If only T’s bag of caramel popcorn had a prize inside…

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