If I were ever to spiral down toward a life of crime, I'm pretty sure I'd be able to pinpoint the day it all began.
It was a nerd-eat-nerd world in Mr. Lane's third-grade class, and Sameer and I were at the top of the geek food chain. Whether it was fraction quizzes, spelling bees, or a quest to memorize the most world capitals, we were always neck and neck in our race for the imaginary title of Biggest Smartypants of 3C.
In elementary school, scholastic superiority tends to manifest itself in the form of sticker accumulation. Scratch-n-sniff varieties were extremely popular in the early 1990s, as were Hello Kitty for the girls and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the boys. Woe to the pupil who got the simple smiley face or, worse yet, a puny "Good job!" scrawled across her work sheet.
But the holy grail of academic achievement came in the form of Mr. Lane's coveted 3-D stickers, the kind that shift images depending on the angle – two stickers in one! – and only given out on rare occasion to the truly deserving for the biggest accomplishments. Sameer and I were ahead of the class when it came to amassing these, and each of us was determined to finish the year out on top.
An unfortunate seat reassignment wound up placing me next to my archnemesis for the remainder of the quarter – the result of some sort of misguided teacher wisdom that inspires them to position cootie-conscious enemies close together to "work things out" – and our sticker war heated up. We scoped out each other's loot surreptitiously and jealously from behind our respective giant plastic spectacles, plotting to surpass each other with each new spelling test.
One day Sameer's folder that contained all the contents of his prized sticker collection was perched precariously on the edge of his desk, and, when he was distracted, teetered off and fell to the floor. Out poured a sticker bonanza. At my feet now lay the spoils of Sameer's victories, taunting me for my shortcomings – one mediocre book report here, one off day on a science test there. Before I even knew what I was doing, and unbeknown to a naive Sameer, who would never have guessed at the extent of my sticker-hungry deviousness, I reached down and swiped a handful. A little while later, Sameer looked confused as he went through what remained of his stash. "Wait a second...?" his face clearly said. I casually flipped through my reading book, pretending not to notice.
Needless to say, I won the sticker war that year. But this ill-begotten victory came at a grave moral price. I never felt good about what I'd done, and the truth kept me from relishing my triumph. I should have won fair and square – certainly I was more than capable, considering I was the kind of dork who might have been known to pore over her parents' Encyclopædia Britannica volumes for fun. Instead of earning my glory through my own merits, I won by cheating. And the guilt ate away at me for years. We moved on and away and lost touch, but I was never able to forget what I'd done to poor, oblivious Sameer.
Then one day, many years later, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Sameer tracked me down. "Hey Sarah," his missive read. "I don't know if you remember me, but this is Sameer. We were in school together for a few years back at NCS...?"
"Remember you? Of COURSE I remember you!" I typed back eagerly. "SAMEER I AM SO SO SORRY I STOLE YOUR STICKERS IN THE THIRD GRADE!!!"
"Sarah," he replied. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
And just like that, the Great Sticker Heist of 1990 met its unglamorous conclusion.
I published this piece earlier this year in the Christian Science Monitor.