I Was an Elementary School Candy Hustler

Trading homework help for candy was pretty sweet.

Photo credit: frankieleon, CC BY 2.0.

I didn’t intend to turn right answers to assignments into a business venture, but that’s how things worked out during elementary school.

It must have been around the third grade when a classmate who sat in my table group said that he’d give me a Nerds-candy-filled gumball if I helped him with his math worksheet. As a kid who came from a household where candy was amazingly rare, I jumped on the opportunity to get free candy that I didn’t have to beg for. Half a page of work later and I had a green gumball that I was able to eat Nerds out of.

A few days later the classmate (let’s call him Andrew), asked me to help him with his reading in exchange for half of a long Laffy Taffy stick from the bodega next to our school. I explained the book we were supposed to read and I showed him the paragraph I had written about the book. He was able to quickly write a mediocre paragraph that was okay enough for him to get the points for having done his homework.

Another classmate noticed the arrangement, and he began asking me for answers as well. I immediately demanded to know what he had to offer for correct answers. He took a quarter out of his desk. I think I used the quarter to buy Swedish Fish at the bodega, or gum, or one of those 25-cent Zebra Cake things. I was able to get a few more quarters out of him, even after I started negotiating the amount of work required to earn the quarter. I discovered that I could do fewer math problems and earn the same amount of Swedish Fish.

I also began to offer my services during my Wednesday evening religion classes in exchange for pieces of Now and Later candies and gum. I doled out everything from homework answers to mini study sessions for upcoming quizzes. The best part of it all was that I was able to carry small pieces of candy around and hide them from my parents. I didn’t have any cavities come up during that time, so they never suspected what was going on.

There weren’t any issues at first. I was rolling in dough—or at least sugar—and I had more candy than I ever imagined I would have at one time. It wasn’t a huge amount, but I had earned it myself and it was great to not have to rely on my parents for candy. It was also great to have classmates who seemed to rely on me. They were friendly, and I felt as if my ability to finish my work quickly was finally useful.

Eventually the teacher was supposed to meet with us and point out weaknesses that would hurt our chances of getting a good grade on the upcoming standardized tests. The teacher told Andrew that he had to stop getting other classmates to help him with his work since he wasn’t allowed to do that during the exam. The next day, when Andrew asked for the answers to his classwork, I told him that he had to try to do it himself so that he could practice for his test. He immediately got mad and told me that I wasn’t his friend anymore. A few minutes later I asked for the bathroom pass, went to a stall, sat down, and cried.

My third-grade self couldn’t fathom the idea that losing a customer and “friend” would make me so upset. I think this was when I realized that I couldn’t mix business with my “personal life.” I tried to apologize to Andrew, but for several days the only response I was given was “you’re not my friend, don’t talk to me.” I tried everything I could to get him to speak to me. But it didn’t work, and I lost my candy client.

I stopped “freelancing” with Andrew after that. I no longer give out homework and classwork answers for sweet payments, but I did start freelancing again as a writer and editor in college. By then, I knew how to separate work life from personal life, and I had grown a much tougher skin and sense of determination when it came to freelancing. I also had more experience in pitching ideas and services, making it easier to find work that would keep me afloat until another paid internship or temp job came along.

Though it’s still really hard when I lose a client or mess up on an order and upset a client, it’s taught me to be a lot more careful at my job and a lot more distanced from the nerves that still set in when I accept a new project. I’ve learned to just do the job and do it well, at least as best as I can until I get the next one. Best of all, I’m not paid in quarters and candy anymore.

A native New Yorker, a sometimes writer, and a full-time journalism grad student at CUNY J. Follow and connect on Twitter @AngelyMercado

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