Bobby's sharp words jabbed deep. I stared down at my cookies knowing they'd never get past the lump in my throat. Today, more than 50 years after that day in second grade, I recall the incident and what I took from it.
Those days, in the mid 1950s, was a time in many schools when children "drew names" and exchanged gifts on the last day prior to Christmas break. A week or so in advance, each child's name was written on a slip of paper and put in a "hat." Then each student drew a name slip and brought in a small gift for the child whose name they'd picked.
I knew what gift I would give even before I pulled out a name. It would be a large storybook filled with adventuresome stories of children and animals and I knew it was sure to please. The book was a couple of inches thick, about the size of a sheet of paper, and with a shiny cover was splendid and cheerful.
I gathered up holiday paper and ribbon, wrapped the book and carried it off to school.
Shortly before dismissal it was party time. Mrs. Higdon, our teacher, passed around small cups of fruit juice and a child who was "classroom helper" followed Mrs. Higdon with trays of cookies. I chose two cookies and laid them on my desk. They were creme-filled oval shapes, my favorites!
Mrs. Higdon handed out gifts and I waited eagerly for her to call Bobby's name. I wasn't prepared for what followed.
In blue jeans and plaid shirt, blond-headed Bobby took the package from Mrs. Higdon and she turned her attention to the next gift. Bobby stood staring at the package. Carelessly, he ripped off the paper and ribbon and dropped them to the floor. He turned to the nearest child and blurted, "All I got was a dumb book." Mrs. Higdon was busy with party chores as Bobby walked down the row of desks, one after the other, asking, "Do you want this? It's a dumb book."
Soon Bobby came to my desk, plopped the book down and said, "Keep it! I don't want a dumb book."
He walked away.
All the other children were busy with their gifts and treats. I took the shiny book and quickly tucked it in my book bag. The cookies lay on my desk uneaten.
School was dismissed and I climbed on the bus for the ride home. I sought the comfort among the familiar farm animals, Old Jerse the big red milk cow, Maude the plow horse and a handful of geese and chickens.
I didn't feel angry; I felt sorry Bobby couldn't accept my gift with a thankful heart. On that day in 1956 in Franklin, N.C., I was convinced that a book really is a wonderful gift. That thought has never left.
I kept the book, and I have enjoyed it many times. It has passed from my hands to those of my children and soon will go to the hands of my granddaughter, who at 5 months grins at the bright images and reaches out to touch pages.
Books open doors for all of us. They help us revisit places we've been and take us to spots we'll never go. They free our imagination, allow us to know great leaders who came before us and send us on historical journeys.
They take us to cultures vastly different from our own and allow us a hearty laugh at life's absurdities. We learn from books, grow from books and are enriched a thousandfold from the words we read.
Now with an upscale bookstore in central Pasco County, we have the creme de la creme of books from which to choose.
The toughest part is limiting ourselves, due to finances or what we can carry to our cars!
Good books can also be found at discount prices at other stores, especially books for small children.
Wherever we find them there are board books, sturdy and strong for babies; alphabet and counting books for preschoolers; adventuresome books of science fiction and fantasy for elementary age children; historical fiction for children who like more realistic reading; books for teens that help them through tough growing times; and hundreds — thousands! — of books for adults in every imaginable field.
I give books every holiday and sometimes for no reason at all. For more than 50 years I've known books are a wonderful gift.
In second grade I confirmed a good thought and I hope fervently my then-ungrateful classmate Bobby grew into an adult who also cherishes books.
Gail Diederich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.