I peeled the paper off the back of the faux mustache and stuck it above my daughter’s upper lip. Olivia would be Milton Hershey for the 3rd grade Living Museum.
“Chocolate has changed my life” she’d said when she made the choice. It had been a downright tie between Milton Hershey or Tom Carvel. I’d suggested a few famous women, ones we might easily find books about for the actual report. Madame Curie, Helen Keller. No dice. “But you’re a girl” her older brother, Luke, who’d been Babe Ruth just three short years ago, said. Olivia dug her sneakers in, she would be Milton.
The chocolate-related choice was not a total surprise. Born with a sweet tooth, Olivia wished for chocolate, not coins, from the tooth fairy. She kept details about her chocolate factory in a purple three ring binder in her bedroom. The binder held her secret formula for a pink chocolate bar, the inner foil yellow, not silver. “Pink for me, yellow for you,” she said when showing me the formula, that I pinky swore not to reveal. “You can eat the wrapper too” she said. On subsequent pages she’d made detailed drawings of her chocolate bakery, a castle shaped shop edged with m&ms and Twizzlers. “I love the peanut butter cup door handle” I said.
Over the weeks, Olivia researched her subject. Indeed, we learned Milton Hershey invented the Hershey bar in 1901, and the Hershey Company makes 100 million Hershey kisses per day now. The thumb-sized silver foiled domes are called kisses because the machine that makes them “kisses” the conveyer belt. We learned that Milton failed with caramels but brought milk chocolate to the masses, while also being a great philanthropist, establishing a renowned school for disadvantaged boys still in existence. At every juncture Milton chose a different direction from the crowd, breaking the mold so to speak. Not unlike my daughter, I thought.
Eventually Olivia finished the report and corresponding project – a poster, with real candy bars hot glued to the border. She worked hard. Tonight would be the dress rehearsal for family only. We finalized her outfit; Luke’s grey pinstripe suit jacket and slacks. She stepped into the too big dress shoes and I swabbed the lime green nail polish off her nails. “Milton didn’t wear nail polish Boo Bean,” I said, the nickname having come from her sister Sophia, just 18 months older, who met Olivia in the hospital at birth, pressed her nose and said “Boo.”
I bobby-pinned Olivia’s long brown ponytail to her head, and stuck the sprouting ends under the black derby hat. I thickened her eyebrows with eyeliner, something she’d done at an earlier trial run with a black Sharpie marker. The clip-on tie completed the outfit. “Lets hear it Milton.” I said.
It was quiet and we sat at the table, Olivia’s two brothers and two sisters having been bribed with ice cream – with chocolate kisses -- if they’d just sit and listen. “You hold the index card Mom,” she said, “Make sure I get it right. Word for word.” Then she asked me to push her button, a red circle sticker on her right hand. “This is my play button,” she said pointing to the red dot. “You push it and I talk.” I pressed her button. “Hello. I am Milton Hershey. I had many successes and failures in my life, but I kept trying.” She spoke her five lines without a miss. She then bowed twice, a little too emphatically, and the mustache flew off, landing on her shoe like a black caterpillar.
In the morning, the parent paparazzi snapped pictures as several dozen 8-year-olds filed in to the south gym, forming a rectangle around the basketball court. The sun splat on the gym floor. I spied Rosa Parks and Neil Armstrong in a pow wow with Pocahontas. I sipped my Starbucks. I forgot about the conference call I had in 42 minutes.
Mr. Arbunkle, team leader for the entire 3rd grade, gave clear instructions, noting the red dot sticker on each child’s hand, the play button. “Start with your child. Press their button to start their monologue. Listen, then move clockwise to the next child.” He said. Apparently this would not be parade across a stage with each child speaking one at a time, but a simultaneous broadcast. “It will get loud with all the children performing at once” Mr. Arbunkle said. Then, there was a great pause, a hush in the room as he cleared his throat and looked heavenward at the ceiling rafters. “Thank you for letting me work with your kids,” he said. They are the future leaders of America.”
True. I looked among the children, transformed into some of our nation’s greatest historical figures, each with their own 8-year old history. Among these bright faces were children who’d discover cures for diseases, invent new ways of time travel, and foster world peace. And Olivia, future owner of a chocolate empire, might one day employ thousands, donate chocolate to the masses. She might build a town, an amusement park and a school for disadvantaged children like Milton himself.
My eyes welled as I walked toward Olivia, who stood now with Emily Dickenson to her left and Amelia Earhart to her right. I pressed her play button. She spoke her lines slowly and clearly. She’d practiced speaking up and not speaking too fast and she did it. I beamed. I hugged her, thankful she was still young enough to like hugs even in public. At the end of her speech she took a Hershey kiss out of her suit jacket pocket and gave it to me. Olivia had been dead set on a handout and I had to get previous permission from Mr. Arbunckle, I was so glad I did, the way she took that chocolate out like a little treasure for each listener.
I made the rounds. I stayed too long. I’d stopped to listen to almost every child. I’d do my conference call from the car, I thought, slowly stepping back to my daughter one last time before the bell rang. I stood before her, my little queen of the cakewalk, my little Boo Bean. I reached for her hand, not to press the play button this time, but to hold it. To look into her brown eyes and freeze this moment, that would be, I knew, part of our personal history.