The Best & Hardest Question

I was 10 years old in 1967, and, courtesy of my grandfather, I owned five shares of Technical Tape Incorporated. All five of us, my younger sisters and my 31-year-old mother, were living with my grandparents back then, in New Rochelle, New York. This was maybe an hour outside of New York City. When my notice of the annual shareholders’ meeting arrived, I was very excited just to  receive a piece of mail addressed to me.  I informed my mother that I wanted to attend.

She didn’t scoff, or make fun of me. Instead, she asked me why and, perhaps more importantly, what I hoped to accomplish by attending. I have no idea what I told her, but, after what was apparently an insightful discussion, she gave me permission to skip school and go, and told me that she would help me with the itinerary.  She could not accompany me because she would be at work (also in the City) that day, so she also gave me directions for how to find her if I got lost.  (Remember: no cell phones back then!)

She also suggested that I probably would not be bold enough to say anything to anyone while I was at the shareholders’ conference, but that the trip would certainly be good for me, for my education.

That morning, I changed into my favorite Polly Flinders dress, a bright turquoise with a yellow-and-pink smocked breast. My mother had hand written my travel instructions, which I tucked carefully into my purse (my first purse!), along with the money for my expedition, and my grandmother drove me to the train station in our old VW bus. I had traveled this route before so this part of my trip was familiar to me.

In the station, I bought my roundtrip ticket and boarded the train for New York City.  Although I had brought a book to read with me, I spent most of the journey staring out the window, my heart beating so hard I could hear my pulse in my head, wondering what surprises lay in wait for me.

An hour later, I debarked.  Grand Central Station was huge and disorienting without an adult hand to grasp, but I had a mission and there was an information booth (well, really an entire island!) in the middle of the main atrium, which seemed as big as an airport hangar and which was filled with crowds of people surging in all directions.

Once pointed in the right direction, I found the tunnel to the correct subway line, purchased my tokens (one for leaving and one for returning), and found the train line I wanted.  I took the subway to Fifth Avenue, where I alighted, and eventually discovered the exit that disgorged passengers out onto my the street of my destination.

I climbed the steps out of the subway into the bright May sunshine and looked around.  I had to orient myself, and, at first, I headed in the wrong direction. But, in due course, I found the building in which the meeting was scheduled to take place, took myself to the correct floor, and found the conference room where 200 middle-aged men in black suits, starched white shirts, and unimaginative neckties milled around, conversing with one another and exchanging business cards until instructed to take their seats.

I signed in with the secretarial types manning the registration table out front.  I stuck my name badge to my breast.  My mother had prepped me for this; I sat in the front row. The meeting commenced.

I don’t remember now much of what happened early on. But I do vividly recall wondering why the chairman of the board kept using the word “fluctuate” during his speech on “The State of the Corporation.”  I had never heard nor read the word before, and had no idea what it meant. So, when he finally called for questions, my hand shot into the air. He did not appear surprised and called on me immediately. I stood and asked “what does the word fluctuate mean?”

He smiled, and there was a round of chuckling from the sea of men seated around me. “Why, that’s a marvelous question!” He exclaimed. “Fluctuate is the word I’m using to describe the large swings in value of Technical Tape stock this year, when the price goes way up and then way down, and then way up again.  Does that answer your question, young lady?”

“Yes, Sir, it does.  Thank you.”  I sat back down, pleased with myself.  All I could think was that now I had a story to tell my mother.

At the end of the meeting, I took the train back to New Rochelle, called my grandmother from the pay phone at the station, and waited for her to pick me up.  That evening, my family congratulated me on my exciting undertaking.  My mother wanted to know everything that had happened and I detailed the entire series of events for her.

My grandmother asked for more particulars while she was making dinner the next day, and so I enjoyed telling the story all over again.  When Saturday night arrived for my grandparents’ weekly bridge game, my grandfather called me into the living room and invited me to tell our guests about my trip into the City.  For several days, I enjoyed a small measure of fame in our household.

Then …The Box arrived.  It was a fairly large box, almost half my height, but also fairly light.  I lifted it easily.  A mystery.  It was addressed to me and the return address was in New York City.  Everyone wanted to know what was in it, and the entire family gathered round while I prepared to open it.

The box was securely wrapped in tape.  My grandfather handed me his Swiss Army Knife.  I cut through the tape and opened the box.  After I pulled out the wads of packing, I found another, smaller box, wrapped in tape.  This box, too, I opened.  Plenty of packing material, again.  And this box, too, held another, smaller box, wrapped carefully in tape.  One more box, and I found the contents, a parcel masked many times over in tape.  In tape.  In Technical Tape?

By this time, it had occurred to me that the package was from Technical Tape Incorporated.  After carefully unwinding yards and yards of tape, I was finally able to unwrap the parcel.  Inside I found a plaque, suitably framed for display, addressed as follows:

To Joryn Jenkins

The Prettiest & Youngest Stockholder

of the Year

For Asking

The Best & Hardest Question

The certificate was signed at the bottom, I realized many years later, just like a college diploma, by both the Chairman of the Board and the President of Technical Tape Incorporated.

To this day, the plaque hangs in a place of honor on my office wall, next to my Yale University bachelor’s degree, my Georgetown Law Center juris doctorate, my photos with most of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, and the award that I received in the Supreme Court itself, one of only three annually bestowed in that hallowed courtroom, in 2001.  I am certain that this plaque played a huge role in making me the person that I am today.  I have never ceased to be astonished by the amazing act of generosity that compelled these two gentlemen to recognize a small girl’s courage and to reward it in the only way they could, with a tangible token of their acknowledgment and respect.

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