Kenny Lytle and I were definitely the oldest kids in school who still believed in Santa Claus.
Our fifth-grade class was in the library one December afternoon, and Sally Snodgrass, who was way too grown up for a 10-year-old, was assigned to read aloud.
"Once upon a time, Santa Claus ..." she began, and then she peered over the top of the book with a smug smile and ad-libbed, "For those of you who still believe in him."
I jumped to my feet and cried, "I believe in Santa Claus!"
My classmates all snickered. All except one. My best friend, Kenny Lytle, stood with me in a show of solidarity.
"My parents wouldn't lie to me!" I said. Kenny concurred.
Sally Snodgrass, that horrid little teacher's pet, rolled her eyes and looked to the librarian to see whether to continue. The librarian, demonstrating the sensitivity to fragile prepubescent self esteem for which school librarians are so famous, said, "Don't be ridiculous. Sit down and be quiet."
This might have been the social disaster of my life. But I've managed to humiliate myself far worse on many occasions.
For instance, as recently as this summer, when I looked up and saw porpoises swimming close to the beach at Tybee Island, Ga., I cried, "Sharks!" -- realizing my error even as the word was rolling off my tongue. Every sunburned Sally Snodgrass on the crowded beach sneered my way.
Another reason it didn't ruin my life was that Kenny and I were -- not to brag -- the two coolest kids in school. He was second, and I was the coolest kid. Half the class thought we were just messing with Sally. The other half, the ones who strove to be just like me, began to reconsider whether the old elf might be real after all.
This was, of course, the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas countdown period when little boys are most conscious of the "he knows if you've been bad or good" thing, and I was certain this bold defense of The Man might mitigate my misdeeds from earlier in the year and put me back on the good list.
My parents were concerned about me. They didn't come right out and tell me the truth, but my dad did read me that famous editorial,"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," that appeared in the New York Sun in 1897 in response to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who had written: "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus ... Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?"
Editor Francis Church's response to the earnest query included the line, "Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!"
My dad hoped I'd get the point. Instead, I started believing in fairies.
I also ignored my older brother who had tried to break the news to me gently: "Santa Claus is dead, you idiot."
Even the great logistical question of how Santa Claus could visit the home of every child in the world in one night posed no problem for me. That's because I knew Santa only liked American kids. British brats had their Father Christmas. Some of the other kids had their St. Nicholas or whatever. And those who didn't, well, they didn't DESERVE any toys.
I listened for sleigh bells that Christmas Eve and was quite certain I heard them. Then, in the morning, I rushed to see what Santa had left, knowing my bravery at school would be rewarded. But there was nothing there.
I looked all around the living room as inconspicuously as possible, hoping against hope that Santa had merely forgotten where he usually put my stuff and inadvertently stuck it somewhere else -- like under the sofa.
As the truth sunk in, my face flushed with embarrassment. I avoided eye contact with my family, hoping they wouldn't notice. I think my mother had instructed my five siblings not to laugh at me or say anything that would add to my embarrassment. Which may have been what prompted my brother to ask, "What are you looking for, moron?"
Mom quickly directed my attention to a plate of fudge, and as I spent the day gorging myself, I pondered the meaning of it all and what it meant for the future.
The most profound conclusion I could draw was that, even if there would never be another visit from Santa to my house, at least there would always be fudge.
But I still dreaded seeing Sally Snodgrass when school resumed in January.