Fourth grader, Nora Santos, feels awkward with show-and-tell her teacher insists she do.
Find Your Voice
by Brian Kies
Nora leaned against the corridor wall and watched classmates shuffle out from the fourth-grade room. Her fingertips tapped the beige bricks behind her. “Why you standin' there?” a classmate asked passing by. She did not answer. Certain that only her teacher remained, Nora took a deep breath, exhaled, and tiptoed through the doorway. Beyond the square of classroom desks, Mrs. Finn was already engrossed in marking papers and did not hear her enter. Standing by the doorway, the nine-year-old fiddled with her long brown hair. She had an unusual request to make but now was unsure whether to interrupt. When she turned to wait out in the hall Mrs. Finn said, “Nora ...?”
The young girl's heart jumped and she spun around. “Mrs. Finn, I have a question … on the show-and-tell.”
The students had returned that day from Christmas break and earlier Mrs. Finn requested each bring a gift — from a family member, not Santa — and present it to the class in the morning. For the rest of the day, Nora had worried about the show-and-tell.
“Come over here,” and the teacher motioned Nora over with her arm.
Approaching Mrs. Finn's desk she could not recall words memorized earlier and, instead, heard her steps across the gray-tiled floor, each step louder than the one before. Somewhat afraid to make the request, Nora's hands began to tremble. Her greatest fear though was Mrs. Finn's answer; Mrs. Finn was not the nicest teacher in the world.
“What is it, Nora?”
“Um … Mrs. Finn … on the show-and-tell assignment …”
She came straight to the point. “May I be excused from it?”
“You do not have to speak long, Nora. Just describe one of your gifts, who it is from, and why you like it. You can be brief.”
“Well, it's not that.”
“Do you not like to stand in front of the others?”
“No, it's not that, Mrs. Finn.”
“Well, what is it then?”
Nora shuffled her feet. She did not want to bring her father into it.
“What is it?” the teacher asked impatiently.
“My father works hard and they don't pay him enough and he could only give me one gift.”
Mrs. Finn was aware of her situation at home. Two years earlier Nora's mother unexpectedly passed and the father, John Santos, had been raising her alone. “I see. Well, why don't you bring that gift?”
A rap on the door caused Nora to flail her arms. Miss Woellert, St. Anne's other fourth-grade teacher, stood just inside the classroom.
“Sorry, I didn't know you were with a student. Had some questions on the PTA meeting. I'll drop by in a bit.”
“No, come in Marjorie,” said Mrs. Finn, “we'll only be a minute.” Mrs. Finn returned her cold gaze on Nora. “Now, don't you think the other students will notice if you don't take your turn?”
“Why don't you bring that gift tomorrow?” It did not sound like a question.
Nora glanced from the corner of her eye at Miss Woellert who sensed the awkwardness in the room and said, “I'll check back in a minute.” She smiled at Nora before crossing the hallway.
“Is there some reason why you can't bring it?” asked Mrs. Finn, sounding more and more like this needed to be wrapped up.
“Well, I'm afraid the class will laugh —”
“Why would they laugh? I don't think you have to worry about that.”
Nora, certain of it, continued, “I mean … I like it … but it is sort of a simple gift and it won't —”
“Sweetheart,” interrupted the teacher, “when someone gives a gift, always remember it is the thought that counts. So no matter …”
Nora looked down at the ground knowing the answer was no. She knew it in her tone and in the words she chose to use.
The short speech ended. “Thank you, Mrs. Finn. See you tomorrow.”
“All right. Look forward to seeing your gift. Have a nice evening.”
Dejected with the outcome, Nora plodded down the hallway toward the glass doors. For a moment, she considered becoming ill overnight, and then ruled it out. Mrs. Finn would have her present the gift on a different day when she'd be the only one and it would make matters worse. Nora was mad at herself for asking. In her heart she knew Mrs. Finn would say no. Why did she put herself through it? She pushed the metal bar to open the door and her father waved from the faded green truck at the top of the hill. He always waved the moment she emerged through the glass doors. Nora smiled and waved back.
Before Isabel passed away, the Santoses were Nora's idea of a normal, loving family. With the additional income of a nurse assistant, they had more than what was necessary to live on. Nora and her mother always decorated their home in the colors of the season. The family went on summer vacations, their favorite places anywhere along the Gulf coast. But — instantly — that all changed. Not only did Mr. Santos and Nora miss Isabel's humor and her wisdom and her guidance, they became the family that lives from paycheck to paycheck. Fortunately, John paid off the mortgage when the house sold and he and Nora moved into a small apartment by St. Anne. And even though the move cut their monthly rent by almost half, he barely had what was necessary to live on. They remained a loving family, but life was far from normal.
Driving home from school through the quiet neighborhood, Nora rolled down the window and watched the bare trees pass by. Grayish clouds of smoke curled up from rooftop chimneys and the afternoon smelled of burning wood. She brought up the show-and-tell assignment for tomorrow. Mr. Santos hesitated a considerable time before asking, “What do you think you'll say?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Two days before Christmas, John Santos window-shopped along Clarksville's Main Street. A light snow fell and the cold, gray street turned soft white. One by one, gas lamps above shop doors flared up, though none yet fully glowed in the winter light. Main Street was magical and John hoped for some to rub off on him. He had four dollars in his wallet. As he stopped at each window — most jutted out from limestone walls — John looked for small items. At a candy shop he noticed a white bag of caramel chocolates for $2.50. He decided against it; he wanted something that would last. At the next window, a tiny train circled a tiny village of gray townspeople and white cotton snow. He shrugged at the $30.00 price. Passing a small cafe, John exchanged greetings with a young couple strolling in the opposite direction. At the next shop window, large and small items lay across a green felt pad. In the far back corner, a sparkling pen gained his attention. John clutched the brass knob of the shop's green wooden door (a wreath hung below its small window), opened it, and entered beneath jingling bells. He removed the pen from the display. Perfect, he thought. A pink fountain pen with silver glitter and three words inscribed along its side: Find Your Voice. Only one matter concerned him; it had no price tag.
John laid the pen down on the counter with hands that revealed the cuts and nicks of hard labor.
“How are you?” asked the clerk noticing the hands.
“Doin' fine, Peter. Thank you.” John saw the name on the his tag.
“Just wonderin' how much the pen goes for?”
“Only five dollars.”
“Shucks,” said John, as if talking to himself.
“Well, how much do you have?”
“A whole whopping four dollars.”
“Hang on,” said the clerk, “let me check our Christmas specials list.” The clerk looked under the counter as if a list were there. Bobbing back up, Peter said, “It's your lucky day, sir. That item has one dollar off.”
Peter tucked John's four dollars into the register. He wrapped the pen with a bit of white tissue paper, placed it in a brown paper bag, and handed it across the counter.
“Thank you, sir,” said a relieved Mr. Santos.
“You're welcome. Merry Christmas.”
John opened the door and as the bells jingled again he turned around. “Merry Christmas, Peter.”
“Merry Christmas to you, sir.”
After the door closed, John had no idea that Peter put a dollar and thirty cents of his own money into the register.
As Mr. Santos passed the shops of Main Street, he thought how he had hoped for some magic, and it happened. Pausing on the illuminated street, he thanked the Lord.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Nora rolled up the truck's window and turned to her father. “That it's pretty, and I can use it at school.”
Back at the apartment after a dinner of macaroni and cheese with apple sauce, Nora tackled her homework. After completing it, they each had a bowl of vanilla ice cream and watched some of the Vanderbilt – Kentucky basketball game. Then Nora kissed her father goodnight and went to bed. From the moment her head touched the pillow she fretted about the gifts she overheard others would present. So, instead, she thought back to Christmas morning when she had no worries at all.
Nora woke at five o'clock that morning. After slipping into her Goofy slippers, she tiptoed through the short hall and entered her father's room. “Rise and shine, Papa. Christmas morning!” She leapt onto the bed and tickled him until she was sure he was awake. Next, she brewed his pot of coffee and boiled water for her hot chocolate. Minutes later, John stumbled into the bright light of the kitchen and poured a cup. “Thank you, Nora.” She put three small marshmallows on top of her hot chocolate.
Every Christmas since she could remember, Mr. Santos would put an album of Christmas carols on the turntable. But he'd sold the stereo and all the records. Instead, he turned on a fairly decent AM-FM radio that rested on the couch's end table and moved its dial to a station playing Christmas music. Music on Christmas day was required in the Santos household. A choir sang Emanuel.
Nora sat down on the carpet in the corner of the room by their little artificial tree. She could not wait for her father to open his gift. As an art project at school, the students each selected a picture frame and small trinkets to put around the frame's border. When Nora found shells and starfish in the metal tub her heart skipped a beat. The border of the frame she selected resembled sand. She attached as many shells and starfish around the frame as space allowed. When she returned home from school, Nora placed the picture frame in her nightstand shelf. On Christmas Eve, she slipped into her father's room and picked up the picture that had leaned against his dresser mirror for years. She kept her fingers crossed he would not notice it being moved. Mr. Santos is standing in the breaking waves of the Gulf and Nora, five at the time, is on his shoulders with her arms wrapped around his neck. She has a black and white bandanna covering the top of her head. Isabel always made Nora wear the bandanna to keep the hair out of her face. Behind them, the sun also rises. Returning to her room, Nora slid the picture inside the frame and wrapped it with the same silver paper they'd been using for two years.
Handing it to her father, she said, “Here, you go first.”
As he unwrapped the present and a part of the past came into view, his eyes opened wide. “Oh, my Lord, Nora. This is perfect!” He leaned over and hugged her. “Thank you so much.”
“You're welcome, Papa.”
Mr. Santos continued to look at the picture. “Mama always put that bandanna over your head.”
They hugged again, this time a little longer.
“All right, now your turn.” Mr. Santos gave Nora the little box. On the box it said: For Sweet Pea — From Papa.
She removed the silver wrapping and the white lid. “Oh, thank you, Papa!” She lifted the pink and silver-glittered pen from the box. “It is so pretty.”
“And you can use it forever,” said Mr. Santos. “We just buy more ink cartridges.” He said this proudly; it being a better choice than the candy in the shop window.
Nora read the words down the side of the pen: Find Your Voice. “Do you want me to be a writer?”
“I want you to be whatever you want to be.”
Then Mr. Santos's eyes teared up ...
From age seven, Nora grew up faster than most children and was mature beyond her years. John loved how he could have almost grown-up conversations with her. One night, in particular, he would often recall. In the slow, painful weeks that followed Isabel's death, he was lost. Isabel had been more than half the rock of the family. On the night in question, John sat alone in his bedroom with the door closed. He held an early picture of Isabel and began to cry and could not control his crying. Nora, passing in the hall, heard her father and entered the room. As Mr. Santos rubbed his hands over his eyes, Nora said calmly, “Don't worry Papa, it is going to be all right. I'm gonna help with what Mama did. It is going to be all right.” She hugged him. Her constant words of optimism were like rays of sunlight filtering through his soul.
“Thank you, Nora.”
She left the room to go wash the dishes.
… and he continued, “Maybe being a writer is not such a bad idea.” They giggled together. His face turned serious.“The truth is, Nora, I'm not sure how much I will be able to help with your schooling.”
John had never discussed it with anyone, but his inability to provide for Nora tore at his heart. He knew that other parents had investments and financial instruments growing funds for their children's college education. He held nothing against them but did they have to estimate if a half-gallon of milk in the refrigerator would last till Saturday. He was so grateful Isabel insisted on a separate account to cover the cost of her education at St. Anne.
Of course, John had interviewed for better paying jobs but time after time was turned down. He realized much later, a hesitancy in his speech made him sound unsure of himself, though he wasn't. His brothers and sisters communicated in the same manner. It was as if a strand of some hesitant gene had become one of their dominant traits. Before interviews, John reminded himself to speak with confidence, but the strand always surfaced. And though it would not affect his job performance in any way, it failed him miserably in interviews. He gave up.
“It will be all right, Papa.” She hesitated and then asked, “How do I become a writer, if I want to?”
“Well, I'm not exactly sure. I think it is difficult. You need a creative imagination and have to work hard at it and be persistent.”
“To keep trying when something does not feel quite right.”
A beautiful rendition of Silent Night played on the radio.
“And you have to find your voice!” said Mr. Santos.
Nora held the pen up alongside her face showing those words. “What is find your voice?”
“Well, I think it means you can be influenced by other writers but you can't imitate them, that you have to find your own voice, as they did. And if you do all that, you only need two other items.”
“Pen and paper.”
“Do we have paper, Papa?” and they giggled again.
Tonight, however, was not Christmas morning, and her thoughts returned to the next day. Timmy Carter gift was presenting a train set with a locomotive that sounded like a real locomotive. He could only bring the locomotive, but everyone would hear its authentic whistle. Her friend, Yvonne, had the latest Barbie and Ken house set. Her Aunt Joan gave it to her. Mike Kerker would present the Mousetrap Game in its big yellow, green, and red box. Mike hoped Mrs. Finn would let them set it up during recess.
To Nora, it sounded like Andy Barber would be the one to outshine them all. His Uncle Monk, who worked at a toy manufacturing company, had given him a programmable tank. You could key in directions (forward, left, or right) and the number of feet to go in those directions to set up an exact route for the gray tank. No one had ever heard of anything like it. When Andy's father watched the tank roll to the right of the kitchen table and then under it and then turn right for five feet until it made a left down the wooden floor of the hall where it turned into Andy's room, the father said, “Well, I'll be damned!” Then he smiled and asked, “Does this mean you'll always be putting up your tank?”
Of all people, why Andy Barber. Andy could be friendly to others but he could be mean. If insults might result in laughter from those around him, he dished them out. He had offended Nora on several occasions. She, like many of the others, ignored his rude comments. Mrs. Finn did not always ignore them. Andy had been to the principal's office on more than a few occasions in his four years at St. Anne. It was all for show. Anytime it approached the level of possible suspension, no one heard a peep out of Andy. He was a wise-cracker, but smart.
Nora tossed and turned on the pillow. She knew her turn would be almost last because of where she sat in class. After a locomotive with an authentic whistle or the latest Barbie and Ken house set or the Mousetrap Game in its big colorful box or a programmable tank, the likes of which no one had heard of, what could she say? Mrs. Finn had told her she could be brief. She repeated aloud what she said to her father. “It is pretty and I can use it for schoolwork.” She kept repeating it in her head until she fell asleep.
Driving to school the next morning, Nora stared out the window and said nothing. Mr. Santos left his daughter alone with her thoughts. Hundreds of them bounced around in her head. She began to focus on one: talk with the school principal. If, due to circumstances, she was going to feel super-super uncomfortable, how could a teacher make her do it. She would speak to Sister Domatilla.
Mr. Santos parked at the top of the hill behind St. Anne. Nora picked up the red and black satchel between them. “Good luck, Sweet Pea.”
Nora could have explained that she was frightened, how it was not their fault her gift would in no way compare to the others. Instead, she kissed his cheek and said, “See you this afternoon, Papa.” She stepped off the truck's sideboard and floated down the concrete steps as if another day at school. Rays of sunlight. Mr. Santos watched until his daughter disappeared through the glass doors.