It was the final Friday of school, the last day I would enjoy the comfortable security of Mrs. Bounds class. I liked Mrs. Bounds. She used to tell us about growing up on a small farm in Canada. It sounded like a good life – but a lot of work. She and her four siblings were expected to do their part planting and harvesting the crops and collecting the eggs. I knew I was going to miss her.
When the bell rang, a sense of jubilation ran through the room. It was electric as my classmates rushed to get out and start their summer, dumping their books in the trash as they left. Some couldn’t even bother with that formality and merely left them on or by their desks. I took my books, cleaned out my desk, wondered for a moment who in the next class would sit in my seat the following year. But I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that. I had a mission I needed to start.
During the two weeks from the time I had asked Mr. Tiffany’s permission, I had already set the wheels in motion. There was a Gristede’s grocery store between my apartment and school and I had gone in several times to ask if they had any cardboard boxes that they would be able to give me. I already had nine boxes and grandma had picked up another four at some other stores. Our small apartment was starting to look like a cardboard jungle.
Grandma had allowed me to use the wire grocery cart that she wheeled behind her when she went on her shopping trips to get fresh fruits and vegetables. It was waiting for me in our foyer when I got home. I put my books on the desk and immediately returned to school.
I had decided to start on the top floor and work my way down. The top floor where the older kids had their classrooms was the fourth floor. I maneuvered the somewhat flimsy cart up the stairs and began by going into the furthest room from the stairwell. I wanted to be able to track which rooms I had emptied and which might still contain some treasure.
I only completed picking up the books from two rooms and my cart was piled high. But it was too heavy for me to wheel easily so I had to pull half the books I had accumulated out and put them inside the door of the second room. I could see this was going to be a bigger project than I anticipated. With some trepidation I approached the stairwell and the three flights down to the street.
It was pretty difficult getting that first load down the stairs because the cart’s wheels weren’t very thick and it listed from side to side as I gently tried to coax it along. When I got my load downstairs and started to pull it home, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to collect all the books that I knew were discarded. I only had three hours until the school would be locked so I revised my plan. I decided to attack the lower floors first in the interest of saving some time on the stairwells.
Back and forth, load after load. I was not only getting tired but hungry. And dinner was going to be ready soon. I had pretty much resolved that I couldn’t do much more and that I should make this my last load when I encountered Mr. Tiffany. I hadn’t expected him to be there.
He asked how my project was going. I explained that I had hoped to clear out the entire school but I hadn’t even finished the first floor classrooms. I think he sensed that I was both tired and a little disappointed.
Then he said he had some paperwork to do on Saturday and that he would be at the school from nine to one in the afternoon if I wanted to keep working at my project. By this time my legs were feeling so wobbly and my back was getting sore from loading books at school and unloading them at home. But I didn’t want to look like a quitter so I thanked him and said I would be back in the morning. I wasn’t looking forward to fulfilling that commitment.
While she was cooking, Grandma had filled most of the boxes with the books I had brought home. Even one of my favorite dinners of liver, bacon, onions and a baked potato with a nice salad wasn’t able to erase the fatigue that overwhelmed me. And her home made apple strudel merely reinforced my need to sleep. I went to bed within ten minutes of eating dinner.
The next morning I woke to a nice breakfast and then back to school. As I pulled my cart, I saw that Mr. Tiffany was walking down the street. He reached the front door precisely at nine o’clock. I finished the first floor and a few rooms on the second, making another six round trips. And then I could see from the clock on the wall of the study hall that it was two minutes to one.
I walked down to Mr. Tiffany’s office, pulling my cart and knocked on his door. He invited me to come in and I said that I had done all I could and wanted to thank him for letting me work on Saturday and wished him a pleasant summer. He smiled and wished me the same.
After church on Sunday, dad and I loaded up the car. That took over an hour and we headed down to Barnes and Noble. Dad went in while I stayed with the car since we were double parked and dad had turned on the flashers. He returned with two young employees who helped carry our boxes inside while two other employees began calculating their value. When the final box was unloaded, dad spotted a parking space, told me to wait on the sidewalk by the front door and hurriedly parked the car.
By the time he and I went into the store, the clerks who had been pulling out the books had only two more boxes to evaluate. It only took them a few minutes and then they told us the total they would pay me. When they said, “The value of your books is $1,085.50” I’m sure my mouth widened enough to have put a small cantaloupe in it. And immediately I thought, “I didn’t even finish two floors.” I later learned that my old enemy envy had brought with him another vice, greed.
Dad smiled at me and said, “Good job,” and collected the money from the cashier. I had never seen so much money. When we got in the car to drive home, he handed the cash to me and asked if I had given thought to what I was going to do with it. Since I had been hoping perhaps to earn one hundred dollars, this large amount was far beyond my expectations. I had made no plans for its use.
At dinner that evening my new found wealth was the only subject of conversation. Grandma who was typically direct had remembered that Mr. Tiffany had suggested a contribution to the school. She didn’t ask me whether I was going to do that. She simply asked, “So how much will you be giving to your school?” Nothing escaped this lady’s attention. And a question such as that coming from her was less of an inquiry than it was a demand that I behave responsibly.
I thought about it for a minute and asked, “Would three hundred dollars be good?” I winced a little as I computed that was three years’ allowance – gone in one moment. She nodded, “That would be good. And I’ll bake a box of cookies for you to give Mr. Tiffany. By the time you start school it will be cool enough to bake.”
On my first day of the new school year, mom closed her store early and met me at Mr. Tiffany’s office as the school day was concluding She carried with her grandma’s cookies and the envelope containing the three hundred dollars and my handwritten note (my mother oversaw its composition) which read:
Dear Mr. Tiffany,
Thank you for giving me the chance to earn some extra money. Enclosed please find three hundred dollars ($300) which I would like you to accept on behalf of the school. My grandma baked some cookies to thank you – but they wouldn’t fit in the envelope so they’re in a separate box.
Very truly yours,
I thought up the last line myself and when my mother read it she laughed. But she allowed me to keep it in my thank you note.
Mr. Tiffany thanked mom and me and we went home. He didn’t open either the envelope or the box of cookies while we were there, but it seemed to me that after that he always had a little extra smile for me when we passed in the hallway and I received the Good Citizenship Award that year.
As to the rest of the money, I made my first stock investments, five shares of Celanese Corporation of America and three shares of Dow Chemical. The remainder went into my college fund.
My classmates still lived in their fancy co-operative apartments on Park Avenue and they still received distributions from their trust funds. But I had something that none of them could claim. With the help of my family and my school, I had taken an idea and turned it into a reality. That was an accomplishment which no one ever would be able to take from me.
I was ten years old when this happened. And that was a very good year for me.