Nora Santos fears a show-and tell assignment her cold and uncaring teacher insists she do.
Find Your Voice
by Brian Kies
Nora leaned back against the corridor wall and watched her classmates shuffle out of their fourth-grade room. Her fingertips tapped the beige bricks behind her. The hallway, only minutes earlier empty and quiet, now buzzed with chattering students who walked in both directions. “Why you waitin' 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 open door.
Beyond the square of classroom desks, Mrs. Finn was engrossed in marking papers and had not heard Nora enter. The nine-year-old remained by the doorway and 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 hallway Mrs. Finn said, “Nora?”
Her heart jumped as she turned 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 — one from a family member, not Santa — to present to the class in the morning. For the rest of the day, Nora's thoughts teetered back and forth on asking to be excused from it: Was it possible if everyone else participated? Probably not! But how can I present my gift alongside the others? Would Mrs. Finn consider it? I doubt it … but maybe. Back and forth it went. It did not help matters that Mrs. Finn was who she had to ask. Through the fall of her fourth-grade year, the teacher had displayed an unusual talent for being mean to the students. Not once had Nora seen her smile. In the end, yeas outweighed nays and she memorized exactly what to say.
“Yes?” The teacher motioned her over.
Approaching Mrs. Finn's desk, the memorized words vanished. Instead, she heard her steps across the gray-tiled floor, each step louder than the one before. Her hands trembled slightly.
“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, tell us who it's 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?”
“A little, but 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. Can't you just excuse me without an explanation!
“What is it then?” the teacher repeated more urgently.
“My father works really hard and they don't pay him enough and he was only able to give me one gift.”
Mrs. Finn was aware of Nora's situation at home. Two years earlier her mother unexpectedly passed away and the father, John Santos, had been raising her alone. “I see. Well, why you can bring that gift.”
A rap at the door caused Nora to flinch. 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 a question on the PTA meeting. I'll drop by in a bit.”
“No, come in Marjorie, we'll only be a minute.” Mrs. Finn returned her cold gaze onto the nine-year-old. “Now, don't you think the others will notice if you don't take your turn?”
“Why don't you bring that gift tomorrow?” It did not feel like a question.
Nora glanced Miss Woellert's way, and the waiting teacher sensed the awkwardness in the room. “I'll check back in a minute,” and she smiled at Nora before crossing the hall.
“Is there some reason why you can't bring that gift?” Her tone now expressed a need for this to be wrapped up.
“I'm afraid the others 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 my gift … but it's sort of simple and, Mrs. Finn, there's no way —”
“Sweetheart,” the teacher interrupted, “when someone gives you a gift, remember it is the thought that counts. So no matter ...”
Nora stared at the floor and knew the answer was no. She knew it in the tone and in the words being used. The short speech ended. “Thank you, Mrs. Finn. See you tomorrow.”
“All right, dear. Would you like to tell me what your gift is or surprise me?”
Dejected with the outcome, the young girl plodded down the corridor toward the glass doors. For a moment, she considered becoming ill overnight, and then ruled it out. Mrs. Finn would just make her present the gift on a different day. Nora was mad at herself for asking. In her heart she knew the answer would be no. Why did I put myself 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. Mr. Santos always waved the moment his daughter emerged through the glass doors. She smiled and waved back.
Driving home through the quiet neighborhood, Nora rolled down the window and watched the bare trees pass by. Gray clouds of smoke curled up from rooftop chimneys, and the mid-afternoon smelled of burning wood. Then she looked straight ahead and brought up the show-and-tell assignment.
“Daddy, I like my gift … I really do … but during recess some of the others talked about what they would be presenting and their gifts are a lot different than mine.” She paused and Mr. Santos continued to listen. “I just felt funny about it and so I asked Mrs. Finn if I could be excused and she said no.”
Mr. Santos was sympathetic to Nora's predicament. “Why would she have to make you do that? Do you want me to speak to Mrs. Finn?”
“No, that's all right.”
The truck rolled away from a stop sign and no one spoke as he shifted gears and the old engine strained higher and higher. Then he turned to his daughter and asked, “Well, 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 except for automobile tracks the cold gray street turned soft white. One by one, gas lamps over shop doors flared up, though none yet fully glowed in the dim winter light. Main Street felt magical and John needed some of it to rub off on him. He had four dollars in his wallet. Stopping at each window — most jutted out from limestone walls — he looked for smaller items. At a candy shop he noticed a white bag of caramel chocolates for $3.50, but decided against it. John was hoping to buy something that would last. At the next window, a tiny train circled a tiny village with gray townspeople and white cotton snow. He shrugged at the $30.00 price. Passing a small cafe, a young couple strolled in the opposite direction and they exchanged greetings. At the next shop window, both large and small items lay across a green felt pad. In the far back corner, a silver-glittered pen gained his attention. John turned the yellow brass knob on the green wooden door (a wreath hung below its small window), and entered the store beneath jingling bells. He removed the pen from its display. Perfect, he thought. A pink fountain pen with silver glitter and three words inscribed along its side: Find Your Voice. One matter concerned him; it had no price tag.
John laid the pen down on the counter with a hand that revealed the cuts and nicks of manual labor.
“How are you?” asked the clerk, noticing the hand.
“Doin' fine, Peter. Thank you.” John saw the name on his tag. “Just wonderin' how much this pen goes for?”
“Only five dollars.”
“Shucks,” he responded, talking to himself.
“Well, how much you have?” asked the clerk.
“A whole whopping four dollars.”
“Hang on,” said Peter, “let me check our Christmas specials list.” John watched him lean over and look beneath the counter. After bobbing back up with a smile on his face, he said, “It's your lucky day, sir. That item has a dollar off.”
Peter tucked John's four dollars into the corner of the register. He wrapped the pen with white tissue paper, placed it in a brown paper bag, and handed it across the scratched wood 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 and said, “Merry Christmas, Peter.”
“Merry Christmas to you, sir.”
As Mr. Santos made his way by the shops of Main Street, he thought how he had needed some magic, and it had happened. Pausing on the illuminated street, he thanked the Lord.
Nora rolled up the truck's window and looked at her father. “That it's pretty and I can use it for school.”
That night when she went to bed she thought of what she overheard at recess, of the gifts others would present. For Timmy Carter, it was a train set with an authentic sounding locomotive. He could only bring the locomotive, but everyone would hear its authentic whistle. Nora's best friend, Yvonne, received the latest Barbie and Ken house set from her Aunt Joan. Mike Kerker would present a unique three-dimensional board game just out on the market called Mouse Trap. Nora had seen its bright-colored yellow, green, and red box at the store.
It sounded like Andy Barber would outshine all the others. His Uncle Monk, an executive at a toy manufacturing company, had given Andy a gift with the latest technology: a programmable tank. Directions (forward, left, or right) and distance could be keyed in to set up an exact route for the tank. No one had ever seen or heard of anything like it before. Andy told everyone what happened at his home on Christmas night. After his father watched the gray tank roll to the right of their kitchen table and then under it before turning right and going five feet until making a left down the hallway's wooden floor where it turned into Andy's room and stopped, he said, “Well, I'll be damned!” His father then asked, “Does this mean you will always put up your tank in your room?”
Of all people why Andy Barber, Nora wondered. He had always thought very highly of himself. And though he could be friendly, Andy could also be mean. If insults might humor the others around him, he dished them out. He had offended Nora several times. She, like many of the others, learned to ignore the rude comments. Mrs. Finn did not. Andy had been to the principal's office four times in the first half of the year. It was all a show. Anytime it approached the level of school suspension, no one heard a peep out of him for a while. He was a wise-cracker, but a smart one.
Nora tossed and turned on the pillow. Seated in the row along the windows, she knew she'd probably go near the end. After a locomotive with an authentic whistle or the latest Barbie and Ken house set or the Mouse Trap game in its big colorful box or a programmable tank, the likes of which no one had seen before, what could she say about a fountain pen? Mrs. Finn had mentioned to be brief. She repeated aloud the answer she gave her father who had asked the same question: “It is pretty and I can use it for schoolwork.” She tossed and turned some more. Nora had that shaky feeling of not being able to fall asleep. So she resorted to an old game often played in her head: recall a previous day and try to remember as many details as possible. She returned to Christmas morning when she had no worries at all.
Nora woke at five that morning. After sliding into her Goofy slippers, she tiptoed through the short hall and burst into her father's room. “Rise and shine, Papa. Christmas morning!” She leapt onto the bed and tickled him until he was wide awake. Next, she brewed his pot of coffee and boiled water for her hot chocolate. Minutes later, Mr. Santos stumbled into the bright light of the small kitchen. He poured his coffee and thanked Nora for making it. 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 music 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 the dial to a station playing Christmas music. Music on Christmas day was a requirement in the Santos household. A choir sang Emanuel.
Nora lay down in front of their little artificial on the beige carpet. 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 trinkets to put around the frame's border. When she scooped up tiny shells and starfish from the metal tub, her heart skipped a beat. The border of the frame resembled sand, and she attached as many shells and starfish around it as space allowed. After returning home from school that day, she placed the picture frame in her nightstand shelf. Then on Christmas Eve, Nora slipped into her father's room and picked up the picture that had leaned against the dresser mirror for years. She kept her fingers crossed he would not notice it being moved. In the picture, Mr. Santos stands in the breaking waves of the Gulf of Mexico with Nora, five at the time, on his shoulders and her arms wrapped around his neck. She wears a black and white bandanna to cover 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 used for two years.
Handing it to her father, she said, “Here, you go first.”
As he unwrapped the present and the past came into view, his eyes opened wide. “Oh, my gosh, 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 made you wear that bandanna.”
They hugged again, this time a little longer.
“All right, now your turn.” He handed Nora the little box. On the tag it said: For Sweet Pea — From Mama and Papa. Mr. Santos never stopped including Isabel's name on Nora's presents.
She removed the silver wrapping and white lid. “Oh, thank you, Papa!” Nora lifted the pink and silver-glittered pen out of the box. “It is so pretty.”
“And you can use it forever,” said Mr. Santos. “We just buy more ink cartridges.” He stated this proudly, the pen a much better choice than window shop candy.
Nora read the words down the side of the pen: Find Your Voice. “Papa, do you want me to be a writer?”
“I want you to be whatever you want to be." Then his eyes teared up.
“What's wrong, Papa?”
From age seven, Nora grew up faster than most children and was mature beyond her years. Mr. Santos loved how they could have almost grown-up conversations. One night, in particular, he would often remember. In the slow, painful weeks after Isabel's death, he had been lost, his wife having been more than half the rock of the family. On the night in question, he 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, she said calmly, “Don't worry Papa, it is going to be all right. I am going to help with what Mama did. It is going to be all right.” Her constant words of optimism were like rays of sunlight that filtered through his soul. She left the room to go wash the dishes.
Mr. Santos steadied himself to explain. “Maybe being a writer is not such a bad idea,” and the two giggled together. Then 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 this with anyone, but his inability to provide for Nora tore at his heart. He knew 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 had insisted on a separate account to cover the St. Anne education.
“It will be all right, Papa,” Nora responded. “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's 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 that, you only need two other items.”
“Pen and paper.”
“Do we have paper, Papa?” and they giggled again.
Nora had recalled so many details in her mind, she was exhausted and fell asleep.
Driving to school the next morning, she stared out the window and said nothing. Mr. Santos left his daughter alone with her thoughts. Hundreds of them bounced around inside her head. She began to focus on just 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 with your presentation, Sweet Pea.”
His daughter could have explained how frightened she felt, how 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 her disappear through the glass doors.
Nora looked down the long corridor to the eighth grade rooms at the opposite end of the school. The corridor was like the golden spine of some unwritten book awaiting all wonders and possibilities. On this morning, it stretched out forever. Nora dreaded seeing Sister Domatilla almost as much as presenting the pen. Halfway down the hallway, her office awaited with its open door. The door was always open but students did what they could to never enter. A statue of St. Anne greeted those who did. As on every weekday morning, Sister Domatilla, wearing rimless glasses with half-inch thick lenses, sat behind her dark oak desk and prepared for the day.
Nora passed her classroom and continued toward the office. The nearer she approached though, the more her pace slowed down. She could not decide between the lesser of two evils: to present the pen or to ask Sister Domatilla to be excused from it. Despite being a servant of both Lord and Roman Catholic Church, Sister Domatilla's temper was legendary at the school. Everyone had heard about the Andy Barber incident.
One morning, an announcement came over the classroom speakers: The staff is aware that during second recess an ice-cream truck passes behind the school at the top of the hill. Students are not allowed to leave our property, and any student found near the ice-cream truck will run the risk of being expelled.
Later that same day, during second recess, Andy and his friend, Bobby Dale, stood by the cafeteria. When the ice-cream truck's sweet melody descended down the hill Andy said, “Hey, let's get some fudgesicles!” Then two hands violently smacked his face from behind. Andy spun around with his right fist clinched and when he saw Sister Domatilla, unclenched it.
“Pay attention to morning announcements,” she said, a twinkle in the dead eyes behind the half-inch lenses, and walked off.
Andy's ears still rang and his eyes watered as he turned back around. Bobby Dale explained, “Bad timing, man. I couldn't warn you, it happened so fast.”
“What a witch!” stuttered Andy.
For the next few days, word of the incident spread throughout the school.
Nora stopped short of turning the corner to the office. Leaning back against the corridor wall, as if trapped in a web, she could not move or decide what to do. Mike Kerker passed by with his Mouse Trap game. “What are you doin' down here?” he said, his voice trailing off.
Nora turned and followed the bright-colored box down the busy hallway.
“Good morning, Mrs. Finn,” the class said out of unison as their teacher entered the room.
After the Pledge of Allegiance, she looked out over the class and noted all students present. “Did everyone bring their gift?”
“Yes, Mrs. Finn,” responded the class.
“Nora, do you have yours?”
“Yes, Mrs. Finn. May I go first?” The strategy crossed her mind the night before. If a circumstance arose to let her go first — to be done with it and not follow everyone else and avoid the torturous minutes of waiting — then take it. When Mrs. Finn singled her out, it felt like that circumstance.
“No, you can wait your turn like the rest of the class. Mike, please begin.”
Nora, third from the end along the windows, fumed inside. Why did Mrs. Finn single her out that way? Why did she have to be so mean? Others wondered what the exchange was all about.
Mike Kerker, in the front left of the room, stepped to the side of Mrs. Finn's desk. Lifting up the bright yellow, red, and green box, he explained how to play this new board-game just on the market. Students were attentive. At the end of his presentation, Mike asked Mrs. Finn if they could put it together during recess.
“I don't see why not.”
Nora fumed more. Then she looked out the window at the grove of trees and the playground beside the trees and tried to tune everything else out. As presentations went by, she wondered what kind of bird had landed in the oak tree? Or if you pushed the swing real hard, how long before it stopped? Or further out on the busy road, when she'd see the next Volkswagen Beetle pass by?
She could hear though. Nothing could be done about that. Yes, the locomotive sounded like a real locomotive. Timmy sat in the middle seat of the middle row. Halfway through the class, Nora's anxiety increased as each presentation closed in on her.
When the class reached the second seat in the second column from the windows, Andy rose with his tank. He swaggered to the front of the room and relished being the center of attention. Once again, classmates paid close attention as Andy explained the way to operate the tank. Mrs. Finn, fascinated by it, asked how many instructions could be entered. “As many as you want,” he answered, “but the batteries may die.” The class giggled. Then he asked, “May I demonstrate it, Mrs. Finn?”
“Yes.” It was the only time she let someone do more than talk about their gift.
Before class, Andy figured out distances and directions for a desired route. After keying in the instructions, he set the tank by the corner of Mrs. Finn's desk and pressed the green Go button. The tank rolled toward the hallway wall in line with the front desks. After passing Mike Kerker, it turned ninety degrees toward the back of the room and students either gasped or giggled.
“Is that a bluebird that landed in the oak tree?” Nora wondered.
The tank rolled toward the back wall and, after passing the last desk, turned right out into the hallway. The room exploded in applause as Andy hurried to retrieve it before it entered Mrs. Woellert's class. The rest of Andy's row made their presentations.
“Yvonne,” said Mrs. Finn.
Yvonne sat in the front desk by the windows. Reality was crashing in; Nora rubbed her clammy palms together. The room became a blur as students just ahead of her made their presentations. Then she heard the word she had been dreading.
“Nora,” said Mrs. Finn.
Rising slowly, she moved to the front of the room clutching the pen in her left hand. Students wondered where her gift was?Reaching the front of class and looking out into the sea of their eyes, she saw no one.
“You can go ahead, Nora” said Mrs. Finn.
“Oh, yes ma'am.”
She held up the pen for all to see. “My gift is a pen.” The hush in the room was shattering. Nora froze and looked as if she could not proceed. “Um … I like it because it is pink ... and it glitters … and I can use it for school.”
“Maybe you'll get some paper next Christmas,” quipped Andy Barber.
Classmates around Andy snickered. Others in the room gasped or made no sound at all with their mouths opened. To be fair, Andy was the only classmate to ever make fun of Nora's situation at home after the loss of her mother. But those around Andy who had snickered were just as guilty.
Mrs. Finn said, “Stay after class, Andy.”
Nora's face turned almost pink as the pen and in a shaky voice she added, “I like how it says find your voice.” She pointed a trembling finger to the phrase on the pen. “That's all.”
As she returned to her desk, Mrs. Finn said, “That's a pretty pen, Nora.”
“All right class, down to two.”
Nora sank into her desk as if she was the only person in the room. Her eyes welled up with tears but somehow she managed to control them. Not since her mother's death had she felt so alone. She did not notice the mockingbird below perched atop a live oak tree looking up at her.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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 money than what was necessary to live on. She and her mother always decorated the home in the colors of the season. The family went on summer vacations, their favorite places being anywhere along the Gulf coast. But all that changed instantly. Now, not only did Mr. Santos and Nora miss Isabel's humor, wisdom, and guidance, they became that family that exists from paycheck to paycheck. Fortunately, John paid off the mortgage when the house sold and they moved into the small apartment by St. Anne. Though the move cut the house payment by half, he only had enough to live on. They remained a loving family, but life was far from normal.
Of course, Mr. Santos interviewed many times for a better paying job. Nora always knew the days when he interviewed, her father dressed in his blue or gray suit. When he'd pick her up after school she would ask, “How did it go?”
“Oh, I think pretty good." A few days later the phone call would explain how it did not go so good … or rather, he was an outstanding candidate but at this time ….
It was many years later that John realized there was a hesitancy in his speech (borderline stutter) and it made him sound unsure of himself, though he wasn't. His brothers and sisters communicated in this same way. It was as if a strand of some hesitant gene had become one of their dominant traits. Before interviews, he reminded himself to speak with confidence, but the strand always surfaced. And though it would not have affected his job performance, it failed him miserably in interviews. He gave up.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Several ink cartridges later and in fifth grade, Nora sat in the old truck and complained to her father about having to go to school that day. Several ink cartridges because, not long after receiving her fountain pen, Nora began to fiddle around with writing little stories and eventually ended up where she worked at it every day. Complaining about going to school because of having to wear full uniform that day. Since entering her new grade, Nora usually looked forward to each school day. Unlike the cold and uncaring Mrs. Finn, her new teacher, Mrs. Urbanek, was kind and nurturing. And Andy Barber ended up in the other fifth-grade class. Today, though, the school was honoring a promotion for Monsignor Rihn and this made the scratchy wool skirt and sweater mandatory. Temperatures were going to be unseasonably warm. At least, an important surprise awaited her halfway down the hallway.
“Stay cool, Sweet Pea,” her father said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Not funny, Papa. I hate wearing this! Especially, when it's warm. Bye,” and she stepped down from the truck without her customary kiss to his cheek. Mr. Santos waited until the feisty daughter entered the back of St. Anne and made a mental note to never say that again.
As Nora approached the foyer, a new poster on the bulletin board grabbed her attention. She stopped beside Sister Domatilla's office to read the bold, black lettering on its orange background:
ESSAY ON WHAT ST. ANNE EDUCATION MEANS TO STUDENT
FOR ALL STUDENTS — TWO DIVISIONS
FIRST THROUGH FOURTH GRADE && FIFTH THROUGH EIGHTH GRADE
WINNING ESSAYS TO BE PUBLISHED IN CLARKSVILLE TIMES
GOD BLESS AND GOOD LUCK!
Inside Nora's satchel, a pink and silver-glittered pen patiently waited.
That afternoon, on their second day of finding Least Common Multiples, Mrs. Urbanek wrote fractions with unlike denominators on the chalkboard. Nora, who rarely required more than a first lesson, drifted away. Her best thinking often occurred while daydreaming. A new thought entered her mind. Students can find common denominators because they first learned their multiplication tables. If each year of math built on the year before, why not make her essay about growth. What if she could show a student's math skills grow over eight years at St. Anne. But how? More daydreaming.
“Nora!” Mrs. Urbanek said louder than usual.
The startled student's focus shifted from white cotton clouds to teacher. “Yes, ma'am?”
“Are you with us?”
Mrs. Urbanek pointed to the chalkboard. “Well, then, what is the least common multiple for these fractions?”
“Oh … I'm sorry … um … ten.”
“Thank you. Now, please stay with the class.” Mrs. Urbanek smiled at her.
Momentarily, that was not possible. Inside, Nora was elated to find a direction for her essay. Like a seed planted in her mind, it could now be nurtured and hopefully grow into a path readers would follow. She returned to 1/10 + 7/4 on the chalkboard. Simple. Least common multiple 20. Multiply 1/10 by 2/2 and 7/4 by 5/5..
Early that Sunday, Nora relaxed on their back porch with a cup of hot cocoa. Vegetable and herb plants along the rails allowed just enough room for the wicker chair she sat in. In the crisp cool air of an overnight front, she snuggled in a University of Vanderbilt throw. To her right, the crescent moon dipped low on a blue and orange horizon. At that time the U.S. space program was on an eight year mission to land a man on the moon, and a captivated country — along with the world — followed each step toward it. The seed began to grow.
What if a graduate from St. Anne became an important mathematician for NASA. He could be invited back to the old school to address students on the importance of education. What would his name be? Nora combined her first-grade teacher's last name, Sargent, with her second-grade teacher's first name, Homer, and called him Homer Sargent.
The growth of a math student over eight years returned; a shape stirred inside and tried to form. What if Homer Sargent addressed one of the first-grade classes and then escorted a first grader into a second-grade class. There, he'd repeat his speech and choose a second grader (all selections female to represent the same student) who would say she learned what she learned because … and the first grader would complete the sentence with what was learned in first grade to assist the second grader. Then the three would go into a third-grade classroom and the third grader would refer to the second grader who, in turn, would refer to the first grader. This pattern would repeat until Mr. Sargent and seven students entered one of the eighth-grade classrooms. Nora thought the repetition of lines would remind students of The Twelve Days Of Christmas.
Wait a second, that won't work! Homer would have to give the same speech eight times. And not everyone would hear it. The shape stirred more and a new form took place. Have him address all the students at once in the auditorium. But what about the growth of the math student?
The sliding door opened and Mr. Santos appeared with a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper.
“Good morning. Thank you for making the coffee.”
“That will be fifty cents!”
He snuggled into a smaller chair near the sliding door. Mr. Santos set his cup down on the wooden crate beside him and noticed the hummingbird feeder low on sugar water. When he looked to his right, the crescent moon, now on a horizon more pale-blue than orange, remained breathtaking. “Oh my, look at that, Nora!”
“I have been. Guess what?”
“It helped me with my essay.”
Mr. Santos set all but the front page of the paper on the crate. “How's that?”
“It's going to be about a graduate from St. Anne who becomes a mathematician for NASA.”
“I like it. Has someone?”
“Maybe. It doesn't matter. I can make up whatever I want in my story.”
After a pause, Nora said, “I have a question though.”
“I have an answer.”
“Can I find out what math we learn in sixth through eighth grades?”
Mr. Santos lifted his cup and took a sip. “Well, sure, we can get books from the library. If you can understand them.”
“Papa, it's not rocket science.” Nora giggled realizing it was rocket science. Isabel used that phrase all the time. Suddenly, another question popped into her mind, one whose answer could be at the heart of her essay. “Do you think there's an eighth-grade math problem ... that to solve it ... you would use something learned from every grade before?” If the answer was yes, it would clearly show a student's growth in math. Where the question came from, though, would always remain a mystery.
“That's above my pay grade, Nora.”
“What's that mean?”
“It means I'm a landscaper. Hey, look at this,” and he held up the front page toward her. She read the headline listing NASA astronauts named for its new Gemini project. Jim Lovell … Ed White … Neil Armstrong. The names were all unfamiliar.
That evening, they made beef enchiladas for dinner. While the enchiladas baked in the oven, Mr. Santos prepared Spanish rice and black beans, and Nora heated flour tortillas on their iron skillet. When the meal was ready and placed on the table, they said grace and dished up their plates.
Mr. Santos spread butter across a tortilla. “Hey, I was thinking about your eighth-grade problem.”
“What about it?”
“Do you know Martha Finto?”
Nora mixed some enchilada in with the rice and beans. “I've heard of her. She's in seventh grade. They say she's super smart.”
“Isabel sold a set of World Book to the Finto's. Mama told me the same thing about her. I bet you she could help with that problem.”
Nora was puzzled. “I don't really know her.”
“So you meet her. They still live three blocks over. Let's drop by later today and explain your situation.”
“All right, Papa.”
The two girls hit it off right away. Yes, Martha was super smart, but she could be silly and loved to laugh. Nora was surprised by that side of her. The two sat at the dining room table with math books strewn across its white tablecloth. They each had a notebook and two pencils. Martha was always well organized in her work.
“This is a really cool idea, Nora. I'm not sure if such a problem exists but there's only one way to find out. What made you think of it?”
“We were working on common denominators and, you know, you can't find them unless you know how to multiply.” She felt honored that Martha had asked a question about her essay. “What's yours going to be about?” Nora wanted to know what the smartest student in school chose to write about.
“How it's important to my future. You know, the usual boring stuff!” The girls giggled.
“How are you so smart?” Nora asked, innocently.
“Prayer.” They giggled again.
Late that night, Nora sat down at the cardboard table in her bedroom. She turned on the little lamp and opened up her satchel. After placing the notes she had made to her right and sheets of paper directly in front, she removed her pink pen and began to write.
Four weeks later, Mrs. Urbanek remained in class long after school and sifted through essay after essay. One more 'I' or 'To me' or 'I feel' and she would scream. She had to continue though; the deadline for selecting the top two fifth-grade essays was closing in. As day's final light filtered into an empty classroom, she picked up Nora's.
Near the top of the essay a simple dedication stated: With special thanks to Martha Finto. Interesting, she thought. Mrs. Urbanek was pleasantly surprised to not encounter a single 'I' or 'To me' in the opening paragraph. In fact, she quickly realized it to be the beginning of a well-crafted story. Clear and concise, Homer Sargent is introduced as a graduate from St. Anne who now works as an important mathematician for NASA. Monsignor Rihn invites him to the old school for a dinner in his honor. Homer proudly accepts.
She came to the heart of the story.
The day after the dinner, Mr. Sargent, dressed in black slacks, white long-sleeved shirt, and thin red tie, stands behind the lectern to address students and faculty in the auditorium. During the speech, he speaks of the beauty God has laid out before us all, and what's required on our part is curiosity. Hmm … Monsignor Rihn will like this. Students wonder about the props behind him on the stage. Except for the eight female students he selected and some of the faculty, no one is aware of the little skit planned out for them.
From left to right across the stage there are eight miniature classrooms, each with four school desks in a square that face away from the audience toward a movable chalkboard. The upper left corner of each chalkboard displays a grade level, the grade levels ascending in order from left to right across the stage. Written at the top of each chalkboard is My Name Is Abbey Rose. Displayed in the middle is an appropriate math topic for each grade.
Mr. Sargent concludes his speech, “So it is all about growth. And the best way for me to demonstrate that is to introduce St. Anne student, Abbey Rose. Abbey please come out.” Eight girls, from tallest to shortest, file out from the left side of the stage and take their place in front of the appropriate grade. There are gasps from the audience. Heads turn left and right and students say, “Oh, I get it, she's supposed to be the same student.”
By accident — nothing Nora planned out — with the height of each girl slightly taller than the one before, together on stage they resemble a perfect bar graph for growth in education. It will be the first of many, the first of what Nora will think of as happy accidents.
Mrs. Urbanek came to the end of the story.
The eighth grader states she can solve the problem on the board because in seventh grade ... and the seventh grader completes the sentence with what she learned to help the eighth grader and that she learned it because in sixth grade … and the sixth grader completes the sentence with what she learned to help the seventh grader ... and down it goes until reaching the smallest Abbey Rose. From there it filters back up to the eighth grader who solves the problem on the board. (Not only did Mr. Sargent create a beautiful skit that demonstrated growth, Martha Finto had pulled it off!) Then the eighth grader turns to the seventh grader and says, “So thank you,” and the seventh grader turns to the sixth grader and says, “No, thank you,” and the sixth grader turns to the fifth grader and says, “No, thank you,” ... and down it goes until the second grader turns to the first grader and says, “No, thank you.” Then one adorable first grader looks up at the second grader and says, “You're welcome.” As the audience erupts in applause, eight Abbey Roses step forward and bow in unison. Mr. Sargent, still behind the lectern, wears a grin across his face that could stretch from St. Anne to the moon.
Mrs. Urbanek sat at her desk dumbfounded. The school had a talent on their hands. Or in her hands, she thought. Though a little rough around the edges — one dangling modifier, some questionable adverbs and adverb placement, at times telling instead of showing, and, remarkable for a ten-year-old, only a little passive voice — the structure of the story displayed unique imagination. Rough edges can be cleaned up. What would remain is a story that captures the essence of a child's education: growing year by year. Or on a deeper level, how each year of our young lives is responsible for who will follow. Nora had not planned that one out either. Happy accidents.