Having the opportunity to receive a private school education had both its benefits and its drawbacks. As a child, only the negatives were clear to me and it would be many years before I recognized the advantages I had received because of my parents’ self-sacrifice so that I could attend. But the most important lesson that I learned was that what I thought of as a disadvantage when I was a schoolchild was actually a great character builder and provided one of my most important early life lessons.
That big negative to my young mind was that I was the poorest kid in my class. No one had to point this out. I figured it out on my own. I knew where my classmates lived and I knew where I lived. I knew the amount of my allowance and I knew my classmates got three or four times as much. I knew that my classmates’ dads were doctors and stock brokers and my dad was in sales. And I knew that I was the only child in my class whose mother worked. And with all that knowing I came to know envy. And it ate at me quietly, stealthily, continuously. I didn’t like my new guest – but I didn’t know how to rid myself of him.
It was mid-May and the school year was drawing to a close. Because part of our tuition paid for our schoolbooks we were free to take those home and keep them if we wanted to review their contents. But most of my classmates couldn’t wait to dump them in our class wastebaskets when our last class was finished – as if to say they had been given a reprieve from the oppression of having to learn – at least during their summer vacation. I had seen that behavior play out the previous two years.
I happened to be looking through the newspaper one night and saw an ad that Barnes and Noble had placed. The ad said that they bought used school texts. And an idea came to me. Maybe they would buy all those thrown out textbooks that my schoolmates couldn’t wait to consign to the trash. So I called and asked if they would buy fourth and fifth grade textbooks. The young woman who answered my call said, “Barnes and Noble will buy all school texts.” After I thanked her I got very excited and couldn’t wait to discuss my idea with my parents – to collect all the textbooks that were thrown out and sell them to this bookseller.
Over a baked chicken dinner that night I told my father what I wanted to do and asked if he would help me. Before he answered, he took a moment, tilted his head and his always kindly eyes seemed to moisten a little bit. He said, “If that’s alright with your school, I’ll be happy to help you. But you need to ask the principal for permission.”
The following day I was at school a little earlier than usual. I went to my homeroom and Mrs. Bounds was writing on the chalk board when I walked in. I asked her if I could have permission to see Mr. Tiffany. I had something to ask him. She agreed and I left the room and walked quickly down the stairs to his office.
When Mr. Tiffany’s secretary showed me in, my heart skipped a beat. My interaction with him was limited to watching him on the stage during assembly leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance and to three days when he taught my English class when our teacher was out with the flu. Most of us kids did not voluntarily seek out an audience with him. And those who were sent there by their teacher always appeared a bit shaken by the experience. He was a tough cookie. Tough – but fair.
I was relying on that rumor of fairness to get me through and I hoped that I would be able to spill out the words in a sensible way to make my case.
Mr. Tiffany sat behind his desk as I explained why I had sought an audience with him. He listened attentively as he placed his hands on the blotter in front of him. His hands and fingers never moved once he had properly placed them and he never took his eyes off mine. Finally, I had presented my request as best I could. I remember feeling nervous to be in front of him as a penitent, begging that he would grant me this small sop.
Perhaps a minute after I had concluded he finally spoke. Here it was. The pronouncement. The verdict. The final judgment from which there could be no appeal. As he began to speak I could feel my pulse pounding.
“How did you like your school year,?” he asked. I had no idea why he would ask me that. That wasn’t the reason for my visit. But if it came from our principal there had to be a reason – unfathomable to a mere student.
“I liked school very much this year – especially math and history,” I answered. I wanted him to get to the point of my request. But he kept on talking about my experience and what I had learned. And the more he talked about academics, the surer I was that he was going to deny my request.
But he finally paused, leaned back a bit in his chair and said, “The fact that you’re trying to be enterprising shows initiative. We hope to encourage that in our students and I’m happy to allow you to engage in your project. There is only one thing I would like you to consider.”
I had no idea what it was he wanted me to consider since I already had a plan for how I was going to pull off this money making venture.
“It would be thoughtful, when you sell the textbooks, if you would consider making a donation of part of your earnings to the school. Whether you do or not is up to you. And if there isn’t anything else with which I can help you today, it’s time for you to return to your classes.” And with that I was dismissed.
In tomorrow’s installment, I’ll tell you how this ended.