The ongoing discussion of school lunch shaming — throwing out the trays of children unable to pay — dredged up a long-ago childhood memory. Ike and Mamie occupied the White House, the Rosenbergs were already executed, and nobody in Washington was cozy with the Kremlin. I’d just started first grade, and it was Fun Day at my small elementary school. Rows of squirmy children assembled in an auditorium with a raised stage at one end. Later that year I’d make my debut there, playing a singing crippled boy. When I got healed at the end, folks reached for their handkerchiefs, though attentive relatives noticed my crutch shifted sides during the performance.
A teacher read us Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I cried as the little girl in the story tries vainly to warm herself with her dwindling stock of unsold matches, with each new flame bringing flickering warmth and fleeting visions. The most poignant for me was her dead grandmother beckoning to her.
I loved my Grandma, and as a boy on the Iowa-Minnesota border, I knew bitter cold. The same church bell I’d eventually be big enough to ring had called Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family to worship the previous century. Her blizzards were my blizzards.
Our Fun Day entertainment included Heidi, the only film in the school’s library, a fragile copy of the Shirley Temple classic. Heidi was a cherished annual event. As years passed and the aged celluloid perished, scenes often ended abruptly. Clara’s miraculous recovery from her wheelchair took increasingly less time.
Before the film started an older boy was selling fresh-popped popcorn. I eagerly joined the line. When my turn came, I was crushed to learn that hot buttered popcorn cost a nickel. Like the little match girl, I had no money. No nickel, no popcorn. It was a rough introduction to finance.
This was my own fault; I forgot to bring home the fragrant mimeographed note reminding us to bring a tiny bit of cold cash for Fun Day refreshments. We weren’t rich, but there was always money for things we needed, mainly books, books and more books. Eventually I’d have piano lessons, too, from a “fancy” college teacher 16 miles away.
Soon I’d be older, more confident. Mom would become PTA president, and I’d be secretly proud that she was smarter and prettier than anyone else’s mother. Eventually I’d understand about money, and she wouldn’t need to tie my lunch coins in a knotted handkerchief so I wouldn’t lose them.
But that day in 1959 I was still 6. All I knew was that everyone else had popcorn and I didn’t because I had no money.
My teacher, spotting me huddled against a wall, swiftly came to my rescue with a nickel produced from her large purse. Nearly six decades later I remember her act of kindness to an unhappy child. Thank you again, Mrs. Fawcett.
Though things have changed since that day, much remains the same. Those piano lessons paid off, and now I’m the “fancy” university teacher people drive to see. My debuts in Carnegie Hall and 36 countries were with Steinways instead of a crutch. But I still like popcorn, cherish the memory of my Grandma and tear up at sad stories. I forget to take notes home, too, though nothing’s mimeographed anymore. My popcorn fiasco didn’t teach me anything, except how crushing it is to be the one with none.
Remembering Mrs. Fawcett reminds me how much I owe to the wonderful teachers who shaped and inspired me. Several narrowly escaped the Holocaust; they survived to teach with a passion that showed us what really mattered. Attacks on the teaching profession pain me. Are all these critics self-made? Some of the hardest-working and most generous people I know on this planet are teachers. Thank you all.
Hungry children remember more than you might think.