This short story is dedicated to my friend, LuRhe, in loving memory of her daughter, Jacinda Edwards Stetler, who was a devoted and beloved teacher.
Tommy was dirty. His overalls were ragged. His hair had a cowlick that sprouted like new alfalfa on the back of his head. His mother was dead, and his father couldn’t keep house. It was a sad situation. He had older siblings, but they were grown and married. Tommy was the runt of the family, the child born late in life to a woman whose energy had lasted only long enough to give him breath. She’d departed this world, leaving a squalling infant to be cared for by her neighbors. They did their best until he was old enough to trot behind his father in the rocky fields and to the barn. Then they’d had to go back to their own families. The Depression had set in hard; every household lived on the rough edge of almost poverty. Tommy and his dad had an especially difficult go of it, but nobody was exempt.
The new teacher in town hadn’t learned all of this overnight. It had come in bits and pieces, gleaned from overheard conversations and from little things she’d picked up by hanging around the general store. This small Appalachian town was tightlipped about what went on at their own tables but good-naturedly free with what they supposed happened at others.
As Christmas neared, Miss Edwards coaxed some of the older boys to chop down a mountain spruce tree and set it in a pail in the corner of the schoolhouse. She rallied the girls and younger students into teams, stringing popcorn and winter berries. Then for the crowning piece, they’d created a great star of tin foil scavenged from their mothers’ kitchens. And now, every day, their Christmas tree stood, sentinel-like in their midst, a witness to their lessons and recitations and a reminder that the Christmas program was coming soon.
There was no more important event in the mountain holiday tradition than the school program. Grandparents were known to rise from beds of arthritic misery to attend and fathers had walked long weary miles from the mines to make an appearance. Mothers ironed worn-out dresses and wore them in pride. Oh, it was a great day, one that marked the official arrival of Christmas cheer.
And Tommy was to have the title role. That was the thing Miss Edwards had decided. This little boy who hung his head in shyness and whose clothing had more patches than a treasured quilt would be the shining star of their production. She had set her heart on seeing him triumph. They were performing a somewhat modified version of Tolstoy’s masterpiece “The Cobbler and His Guest.” The mountain children had warmed to the story of a simple, working man and his needy callers. The mystical overtones appealed to the deep hold of their ancestral folklore. Who knew but what angels were in their very midst, dressed in flour-sack dresses and faded denims? Who knew but what the Lord Himself had shown up on their mountain?
It worked in her favor that the lead character had little to say in the production. He could mime his way through much of the acts, going about the actions of mending shoes and saying to each one who came to his door, “Come in and warm yourself by my fire.” Miss Edwards had to coach him to speak up; Tommy never spoke loudly. And the tiny lisp of his tongue made it sound as though he were saying your-thelf, but he spoke with quiet joy that lit up his smudged, little face. Miss Edwards was certain that the very hosts of heaven bent closer to hear his words.
It was the custom for the mountain children to bring gifts to the teacher on the day of the great program. School was dismissed at noon so that everyone could go home and get scrubbed and polished for the night’s glamour. Washtubs were filled with mountain spring water heated on wood-burning stoves and necks and ears were attacked with vigor by mothers who were determined that no child of hers would attend the program in anything less than squeaky-clean condition. Clothing was pressed with flatirons and shoes blacked with soot from cook stoves.
But before all this could begin, the semester ended with the Christmas party in the schoolhouse. Miss Edwards was bringing store-bought sugar cookies and hot cocoa. For weeks now, this prospect had delighted the imagination of her students. And as the day drew closer, visions of stars and bells, sprinkled in red and green, danced in their heads as they tried to study. And every child had carefully planned what he or she would bring to the teacher, their Miss Edwards. Such offerings must be the best one could afford. Surely the sages of the East did not deliberate more intensely over their gifts than did these boys and girls. What they lacked in their purses they made up for in creativity, planning and love. It might be a hankie for her pocket, stitched with care and embroidered with her initials. Maybe a loaf of spicy gingerbread, baked from the finest molasses and wrapped in a scrap of cherished gingham. Perhaps a ruler for her desk, sanded to satin by boyish hands. Whatever it was, every heart was filled with anticipation and pride in awaiting the moment when the teacher opened her presents.
Tommy had no money. He could not bake or sew or build. But his teacher would not go ungifted. He had determined to give her a bottle of perfume. It was the only thing worthy of Miss Edwards. Something beautiful and fragrant, unblemished and happy, like her. Every time he trailed into the general store behind his father, he looked for it on the counter – a tiny glass bottle with a blue label. It cost a penny. And that was the problem in his way.
Tommy had once seen a penny, shiny and coppery, but he had never held one. And certainly never owned one. But now he must get one. There was simply no alternative. Miss Edwards must have her Christmas perfume. He lay awake at night, thinking hard about how he might procure the prized money. He thought of working for it, but who would hire a slight boy with no skill? He thought of borrowing it, but there was no one he knew who would do that either. He wanted to ask his father for it, but there were some things even he knew were too much to request.
So, the days went by and he continued to mull his problem.
And then, one day, the answer came to him. Simple. Brilliant. Plain.
He must pray for a penny.
Miss Edwards opened each school day with the pledge and prayer and a Bible story. She was working her way through the miracles of Jesus. And when she told the story of Peter and the coin found in the fish, Tommy knew that heaven had given him his answer. There were fish in the mountain stream, but he had no pole or hook. But if the Father in heaven could put a coin in a fish, He could also put it somewhere else for Tommy to find. That is what his little mind reasoned. And so, that night, before he climbed into his rumpled bed, he knelt and clasped his hands and petitioned the Lord for a penny. He said “Amen” and jumped under his quilts, gleeful with the knowledge that his problem would be solved.
After that, Tommy took to looking under rocks and inside empty cans along the road. He peered into holes and stared at the ruts in the road. He was confident the penny would materialize. And he didn’t want to miss its appearance. But, for all his inspection, he was surprised when he saw it.
It was stuck in a crack of the schoolhouse floor, wedged in tight between two boards. He saw it as he was unloading an armful of firewood for the pot-bellied stove. He hunkered down to make sure. Yes, it was a penny, a dull, grimy one, but a penny all the same. He grasped it and worked it, worried it would slip between his fingers and fall down below the floorboards. But it came free with a snap and he sat back on his heels, looking at the prize in his hand.
There was no doubt in his mind but that the Father had placed it there. None of his classmates ever had money. There was no other possible explanation. And yet, he felt troubled inside at merely tucking it into his pocket. Suppose someone else had a claim to it? He could not use stolen money to buy a gift for his beloved teacher. God would provide another way if this belonged to someone. And so, he made up his mind what he must do. He walked up to Miss Edwards’ desk and opened his palm before her and told her where he had found it.
When she told the class, everyone looked with desire on the coin she held up. But no one claimed it. They were too honest, these children of poverty, to grab what was not theirs. That would be more injurious than accepting charity. So, Tommy was left to enjoy his find. He put it into his pocket with complete satisfaction. All day long, he smiled inside and put his fingers into his pocket just to caress the round edges of his answer from heaven. And after school, he skipped to the general store.
It was gone.
The glass bottle with the blue label.
He looked for it, frantically, panicking.
He asked Mr. Hobbs, the proprietor.
“Perfume? Why that wasn’t perfume, boy. It was pure vanilla extract. The ladies like to use it in their holiday baking.”
Tommy was crushed. His beautiful dreams shattered before him. There would be no moment of delight, no surprise and happiness on his teacher’s face. He had failed. He hadn’t even read the label properly.
“How much is your perfume?” He dared to dream again.
“Ten cents, son. The finest in these parts.”
But Tommy didn’t have ten cents. He hung his head and turned away, a dejected magus without a gift of love at Christmas.
All the long way home and into the night, he wrestled with his problem. The next day was the class party. There was no time to pray for more money. He had nothing to give. Nothing to offer to the teacher who believed in him, who smiled at him every morning and looked into his eyes with belief when he handed in his arithmetic homework. He had failed. And she would never know how much her presence meant, how she had comforted and inspired him, how he had learned through her that there was nothing too hard for the Father, not even a motherless little boy with a lisp.
And then, just as the first streaks of pink were waking up the sky, he knew what he had to do. He jumped out of bed onto the cold floor and scrambled into his clothes. He sloshed water onto his hand and tried to flatten his hair. Then he grabbed the penny from the windowsill and ventured down the hall and into his father’s room, long emptied of his father who was doing the milking. On the bedside table lay his mother’s Bible. And there, sticking out from the bottom, was what he was looking for. The only piece of ribbon he knew about.
Tommy carefully opened the precious book and pulled at the ribbon from the top. It resisted just a moment and then came free. He stood there a moment, sad to take this pretty scrap from the mother he’d never known, but somehow believing that she would understand why he was giving it to the person he imagined was most like her. He went downstairs and pulled out the Sears and RoeBuck wishbook from its special place. He turned the pages until he found the perfume section and tenderly ripped out one of them. He put the penny inside and began folding the page until he had a tiny package. It took him a long while to get the ribbon around it and tied into a bow. He didn’t often tie bows and one of the loops was larger than the other, but it made him smile anyway as he ran out the door and down the path. He didn’t have time to eat the oatmeal his father had left on the stove, but after all, today was the day Miss Edwards was bringing cookies and hot cocoa. He didn’t mind being hungry until then.
The morning seemed to pass slowly as the children read their lessons and recited their spelling words, all the while eyeing the pile of packages on teacher’s desk. Finally, the clock struck 11:00 and Miss Edwards called for all books to be put away and all desks cleared. Turning to the cabinet behind her desk, she pulled out a huge tray of glorious Christmas cookies, their sugar sprinkles sparkling like diamond dust in the light coming in the schoolhouse window. From the back of the stove, she drew the pail whose aroma had been tempting them all morning. Then, one by one, starting with the youngest pupils and girls going first, they approached her desk and received two cookies and a ladle of cocoa into the tin cups they had brought. They marched carefully back to their seats, cradling their treats, vigilant lest any errant crumb or spilled drop deprive them of a taste of pleasure. They savored every bite and swallow while Miss Edwards looked on with smiles and every now and then took a sip from her own cup. At last, they were done and sat back with satisfaction to watch the teacher open her gifts.
Of course, she oohed and aahed over each one, looking up to bestow a beautiful smile at the giver and giving each gift a spot of honor on her desk. She smoothed the wrappings and fingered the ribbons with love. Only after being in the homes of these students could one understand the sacrifice with which many of them presented these oblations of love to her. And then she came to a knotty, little package of magazine paper, tied awkwardly with a frayed ribbon. She smiled and began to unwrap it. There was fold after fold, uneven in its creases and it was a bit soiled in spots. When finally, all was unwrapped, she looked upon a penny, Abraham Lincoln’s face marred with rust and age. She reached for it as she thought to herself that she had seen a coin somewhere like it recently. And as she gazed out upon her class to discover the benefactor, it dawned upon Miss Edwards that this penny was the very one Tommy had found in the classroom planking.
Sure enough, he was grinning at her from his seat, his dirty little face glowing and his cowlick more rebellious than ever. Then she saw the writing, scribbled onto the page, crowded in amongst the merchandise from Sears and Roebuck
For purfum. Frum Tommy.
Miss Edwards didn’t stop smiling. She looked straight into Tommy’s eyes and said, “Thank you, Tommy. How did you know that I needed perfume? Maybe an angel told you.”
And all the other students wondered why Tommy was so special that even angels talked to him.
The program that night was the best one ever, the mountain families said. Everyone was talking about the title role and how Tommy sure surprised them all with his ability. When he welcomed his Christmas guests into his little cobbler shop, he did so with such warmth and kindness that one could hardly believe he had rarely received such blessings himself. And when, at the end of the play, he stood on the stage by his cobbler’s bench and heard the voice of the Lord from the behind the muslin curtain proclaiming that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me,” Miss Edwards knew God hides His pearls of truth in common, everyday ways. Martin the Cobbler hadn’t recognized His Lord in the form or an old man or a woman with a baby or a little child. And the mountain community had missed the fact that a grubby little boy understood far more about the kingdom of heaven than they imagined.
And, in her collection of treasured mementos, Miss Edwards guarded that dingy penny and cheap ribbon, raveled with age and faded to a soft pink. They were reminders of the great work of teaching and of the love often lavished from the most unpromising student. And no bottle of perfume she ever received had a fragrance to match the aroma of the sacrifice she’d received from Tommy. The beauty of it rose up to the heavenly palace where the Father smiled at His messenger who’d bent low over the Appalachian mountains to nudge a penny into a schoolhouse floor.