Getting What You Need By MEL MARTYNN

Friday December 24, 2004

It’s an early October Tuesday, late afternoon, and most of Berkeley’s elementary students are plopped down in front of Spongebob, Lizzie McGuire, or That’s So Raven. A few may even be playing some kind of ball game outside. But not Renee Mattson. This fifth grader is selling candy and gift wrap to whomever she can buttonhole. First she starts with the obvious, after all this is a “school” fundraiser. Before she leaves the building she has begun to contact almost every adult with a checking account. Sometimes she drags along one of her friends like Jade for support, or perhaps Jade knows the potential buyer just a little bit better than she does. Mostly though she’s just out there with her confident manner and fierce determination. 

No one escapes her net, classroom teacher, aide, librarian, janitor, yard supervisor, resource teacher, even the principal. Renee is unrelenting. Each one in turn is made to believe that Renee is on a very important mission, and that she just needs one more person to help accomplish it. Most succumb, often because she is the first or perhaps the only student to ask. 

Now it’s time for dismissal. With her granddad in tow she heads for nearby College Avenue. She remembers the kindly clerk in the neighborhood market where they often purchase her favorite snack, chips doused in sea salt and vinegar. It is payback time, and within minutes she’s scored again and is out of the store and back to the pavement. But wait, she tilts her head to the hill side of the street, towards the women’s hairdresser where she sold so many raffle tickets when she was 8 years old. “Perhaps, Granddad?” she insists. Why not, he nods, and stands guard outside. Through the glass he can see Renee systematically approach one dryer after another. At first this captive audience is surprised at the con brio intruder, but quickly they recognize that Renee is determined, and that this young entrepreneur is perhaps only a younger version of themselves. Soon checkbooks come out and business is transacted. Renee returns to the struggle but now with the flush of just a partial victory, only two sales this time. Not even the reminder that this dollar sum is still greater than before can assuage her disappointment. But then, when her grandfather brags to a new friend at the bus stop that she finished in the top five two years ago, Renee will have none of it. “Second,” she cuts in, “I was second.”  

Now they head for College and Ashby avenues. This time to specifically buy some greeting cards. But Renee is unstoppable. When her grandfather’s back is turned she continues where she left off at the hairdresser’s, encouraging each customer to aid her cause, (only to be summarily dismissed to the curb when the clerk recognizes this turbo competitor). Renee is undeterred. Later at her after school program she continues to cast her spell. Ten more Bling, Blings! That evening, back in her South Berkeley neighborhood she continues the onslaught. Friends and neighbors are converted to her cause. Like Alexander the Great, she enlists all relatives within 50 miles into her services. In no time at all these mercenaries are besieging their fellow co-workers throughout the Bay Area. Victory is at hand! Two weeks later the crusade is over. Renee’s efforts add up to nearly ten percent of the school’s total. A new individual student record is set. 

It is now November, in an ice cream shop across from the UC campus. The totals have been certified, there are no recount challenges. Renee is licking a cone of her favorite flavor, chocolate chip cookie dough. I asked her what advice she could give future salespeople. “Don’ t give up. Believe in yourself, and have some real good friends and relatives to help you.” Has she been a salesperson before? “Oh sure. I’ve sold soap for my chorus group, and I cut off the bottoms of blue jean pants and turn them into purses, which I decorate. People love them.” Does she see herself as a future salesperson? “Maybe, a salesperson or a waitress, but that’ s a long way off.” How about the WHY factor in all this selling? “Well, I really wanted to win the top prize, a trip to Disneyland for me and my family, but also I like to sell stuff. I like to go and talk to people. Like, my teacher’s going to have a baby. I think I’ll bake something, then sell it and use the money to buy her a nice present.” What could be more reasonable, I thought to myself, and ended the interview by wishing her good luck in the Spring Raffle. “You rock Renee! I cheered.” And then a wide, wicked smile spread across her face. “Thank you, Granddad,” she said.