When I was eleven and in the sixth grade I got into trouble because O. Henry was bad at arithmetic. Mrs. Evans and I didn’t get along too well. It was a clash of personalities—she hated to be corrected and I was a kid who was quick to set her straight. But I think we could have survived through the year except for that week before Christmas vacation.
One class period a week Mrs. Evans would read a story to us as a reward for good behavior and as a relief from regular class work. It was something I really appreciated because then I could daydream out the window, imagine flying a fighter through the trees and around the December sky.
Mrs. Evans began by saying she was going to read a story about the true meaning of Christmas.
“This story is by O. Henry. It’s a very famous story—‘The Gift of the Magi.’” She paused and looked up at us to ask, “Does anyone know what a Magi is?”
“They were the Three Wise Men who came to honor the Christ child. Remember? They were the wise men from the East who followed the Star of Bethlehem. And they brought three gifts…”
“Gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” called out Mary Elizabeth.
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Evans. “And that’s when the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas began.” She waited for us to take that big idea into our dull brains and then she began to read. “And now ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry.” She paused again to see if we were listening with the proper serious attitude, like in church. We all waited until there was no shuffling of feet, rattling of rulers and pencils, no whispering, not even the sound of breathing.
“It begins: ‘One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time…’”
Suddenly my brain clicked on. Right off I thought that was an interesting problem: what coins make $1.87 with sixty cents in pennies? If sixty cents was in pennies then $1.27 had to be in something else—nickels or dimes or quarters. How could that be?
I raised my hand. Mrs. Evans either didn’t see my hand or she ignored me. I waved my arm. Still nothing. She sat there continuing to read.
So I interrupted: “Mrs. Evans?”
She stopped reading to give me one of her long looks. “If you need to use the rest room—if it’s so urgent—please go and don’t disturb the class.”
“No, no—it’s not that. It’s the story. It’s wrong.”
“Wrong?! What’s wrong?”
“The arithmetic—it’s wrong. It can’t happen. It’s not right.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now be quiet, sit still, and listen … Sometimes I just don’t know.” She shook her head, took several slow deep breaths and began to read.
Luckily the story was short so I didn’t have to wait too long. It was about a woman named Della and her husband Jim. They were poor so for Christmas she sold her long hair to buy him a chain or something for his watch and he sold the watch to get fancy combs for her hair. I thought she got the better deal, since her hair would grow back but he lost his watch. When the story was finished I raised my hand.
She ignored me. She asked, “Now, can someone tell me the moral of the story?”
“All right. Oh, all right, what is it?”
“The story’s all wrong. You can’t have a dollar eighty-seven with only sixty pennies. A dollar eighty-seven minus sixty cents is a dollar twenty-seven and even if you use a dollar and nickels or dimes or even a quarter you still have two cents remainder. Don’t you see?”
“Of course I see. I’m not an idiot. But that has nothing to do with the point of the story.”
“No! No!” I was standing now. “That’s what the story is about—about the dollar eighty-seven.”
“Well, it’s not. The amount of money is NOT the point.”
“Oh no? What if she had a thousand dollars? A million dollars? Then she wouldn’t need to cut off her hair.”
“If you had been paying attention you would know that she did not cut off her hair. She sold it and a Madame Sofronie cut it off. Della sold her hair to buy the platinum watch fob.”
“Yes! Yes! See, she wouldn’t have to sell anything if she had a million dollars.”
“Don’t you understand she did not have a million dollars?” Mrs. Evans almost screamed.
I pointed my finger at her, shaking it and emphasizing each word. “Exactly,” I said, imitating her tone, “that’s why getting the pennies wrong is what’s wrong with the story. It’s all about the dollar eighty-seven.”
She threw up her hands and looked at the ceiling. I turned to the class. Everyone was just staring at me. Nobody even giggled—or anything.
I said, “Look, it is about the dollar eighty-seven because that’s the first sentence in the story. And it’s all wrong. It’s just simple arithmetic. If you take away a dollar then you have eighty-seven—”
“That’s enough. ENOUGH! Right now!” Her face was red with white blotches. She was standing there rigid and leaning against her desk.
After a long minute, she sat down and told me to come up to her. I stood there beside the desk while she wrote a note. She wrote it in ink on the cream-colored paper she kept in a drawer. When she was finished she folded the page in thirds, creasing each fold. She wrote the principal’s name on the back of the note, above the first fold, and then looked me directly in the eyes, very intensely as if she could see inside my head. I remember she had large brown eyes and very thin eyebrows. She had a bright red lipsticked mouth. She always bit her lower lip when she was upset and there was lipstick on her teeth. I think she was in her early forties, but that was old to me.
“Take this to Mr. Westlake.”
I took the note and started to the door.
“And don’t let me catch you reading it.”
No problem about that. I went straight to the boys’ restroom and read the note there. It presented the basic facts but from her angle. She also claimed I was a constant problem, disrupting the class “frequently,” which was not true. I was a kid who liked facts. My second favorite book was the yearly almanac. So there were times I had to correct teachers when they got the facts wrong. Mrs. Evans didn’t appreciate that. (She was like my dad that way.) If I told her there were three hundred and sixty-five and one-fourth days in a year not just three hundred sixty-five and that there were different years—like the sidereal year or the solar—she just got irritated.
Mr. Westlake read the note, nodding and making a kind of humming sound. He had red hair, thin at the top so you saw his white scalp when he looked down. He wore thick glasses with dull red frames. He put the note on his desk, leaned back in his chair and lightly tapped the desk with a pencil.
I did. We were in the inner office, the one with the frosted glass window. In the outer office his secretary was typing.
“You know you’re in trouble,” he said.
“You know what Mrs. Evans wrote here?” He tapped the note with his pencil.
I said nothing.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t read it.” He waited. “Well?”
“It’s not true that I always cause trouble. It’s not true that I disrupt the class. She’s just mad because she’s wrong about that stupid story.”
“Oh? A stupid story? Mrs. Evans says here that it was ‘The Gift of the Magi.’ It’s a famous story, a classic. In fact, that story is a favorite of mine. O. Henry was a great writer.”
“How could he be a great writer if he couldn’t do arithmetic?”
That stopped him. He gave me a long look too—but not quite like Mrs. Evans did. It was more like he was measuring me, figuring something in his head.
Finally he asked, “Do you think arithmetic is important?”
“Yes,” I said and then I gave him all the reasons you needed to know long division and decimals: to figure batting averages, earned run averages, slugging percentages, and all the important stuff of baseball.
Baseball, that was the key word. He smiled and leaned forward and asked me what I thought about the World Series. I told him I hated to see the Phillies drop four close ones to the Yankees. I wasn’t a Phillies fan but I hated the Yanks—even though I liked Dimaggio, who went four for thirteen with a home run. But his brother Dom was a better fielder and, besides, no one could match Ted Williams, who was both a great hitter and a fighter pilot. Then we talked about the Indians, and he was impressed that I knew Rosen’s and Doby’s and Mitchell’s batting averages and the ERAs of the pitching staff.
“I played ball,” he said. “Second base. Good field, no hit.”
“Best I could do was foul it off.” Then he studied me again, tapping his pencil. “So what are we going to do with you? Any ideas?”
Sure, I had ideas but I knew enough to keep quiet.
“All right, you have to understand that there’s more to school than arithmetic, more to life than baseball.”
I agreed with him—there was being a fighter pilot, flying F-80s or the new F-86 Sabre. The Korean War had started and I knew there was more to life than baseball … and school. But I didn’t say that.
“I think you need a special assignment. I’m going to recommend to Mrs. Evans that you write a report—a report on O. Henry and present it to the class. Also, you will apologize to her—in front of the class—for your rudeness.”
OK, I thought, that’s how it is—my punishment for being better at arithmetic than O. Henry was to write a dumb stinking report. I hated reports—writing them, reading them, even thinking about them. I once had to do a report on George Washington. I wrote: “George Washington was born in 1732. He was a general in the American Revolution. He was the first president. He caught a cold and died. The end.”
So, after my apology (spoken at the floor with my lips barely moving) Mrs. Evans sent me to the school library to look up all there was about O. Henry. From the encyclopedia I learned his real name was William Sydney Porter, that he was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862 and that he died in New York City in 1910. But the big thing I found out was that he had “served time” in the Ohio State Penitentiary for embezzling. From the dictionary I learned what “embezzling” meant.
The next day was the day before vacation. It was to be a short day of classes and then cookies, fruit cake, and punch in the cafeteria.
I read my report to the class. I covered the basic stuff about birth and death and the titles of his books. But then I struck with: “He took the name O. Henry when he was in PRISON. He was in prison for three years and three months. This ‘great’ writer was a crook. He stole money from a bank in Texas and ran away to Honduras in Central America. He even stole the name O. Henry from a prison guard.” I walked over to Mrs. Evans and put the one page report on her desk. I didn’t slam it down, but I did place it there firmly, squarely, as I said, “And there’s the truth about your old O. Henry.”
Mrs. Evans jerked her head in the direction of my seat. When I sat down she looked up from the report. “Class, it is true that O. Henry went to prison—apparently for three years AND three months. But he paid his debt to society. He was sorry for what he had done and he made up for his crime by giving all of us the gift of his stories. We would all be better off, the world and this class room would be better off, if certain people really felt sorry for what they did and would make a sincere effort to improve. O. Henry could be a model for us all.”
Well, it was pretty clear who that was aimed at. But I was really mad at how she’d switched it around—she made it seem OK that he was a crook. I had presented the evidence and she turned it against me. The more I thought about it the madder I got. I couldn’t let her get away with that.
I jumped up. Without thinking I opened my mouth and my dad’s favorite word popped out—I yelled, “Bullshit!”
“Whaaat? What did you say?”
“That’s bullshit. You’re just mad because I was right and O. Henry was a crook and couldn’t do arithmetic and … and that’s what it’s all about.”
She slapped her desk so hard the floor shook. Her face was white and she yelled back at me: “You … you … you brat. You foul-mouthed brat.”
She came over to me and bent over to whisper, “Trailer trash.”
Then I used my dad’s second favorite word: “Bitch!”
She screamed. I thought her head was going to explode. I knew I had to get away. I ran for the door but she grabbed me by the arm, squeezing so hard her nails went through my shirt sleeve. She dragged me out of the room, down the hall, up the steps to Mr. Westlake’s office, shouting all the way, “Now you’re going to get it! Now! Now! Now!” Class room doors flew open, teachers looked out, some kids tried to see around them.
Mr. Westlake was waiting in the doorway. Mrs. Evans didn’t let me go until he reached out and slowly took her hand and said, “I think we should handle this inside.” He motioned me into his inner office.
I went past his secretary who was looking through some folders on her desk. She didn’t nod or anything and I went into the office and waited.
I could hear him talking to Mrs. Evans but I couldn’t catch all the words. I did hear her say something about “necessary and severe” and “make-an-example-of” and “the words he used” and Mr. Westlake say, “Certainly, certainly. We can’t have that kind of behavior. I’ll take care of it.”
When he came in he shut the door and set a folder on his desk.
I did and he went to his chair across from me and opened the folder. “Your school record—it’s not bad. Your grades are exceptional in everything but English. I have one big question—why?”
“I’m not trailer trash,” I said. We were poor and our house didn’t have running water and we had an outhouse but we didn’t live in a trailer.
He nodded. “She said that?”
“Still … you know you shouldn’t talk to a teacher that way, use those words—especially in front of the class.”
“Then she shouldn’t either.”
Mr. Westlake leaned back in his chair and looked at me for a long time. It was such a long time that I got worried.
“You know I have to punish you. You understand—it’s insubordination. What else can I do? I have to punish you.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, first off, you can’t go to the Christmas party. I mean, that goes without saying.”
I nodded that I understood. I didn’t think it was fair since I hadn’t done anything. I didn’t break any law. Anyway, I didn’t want to go to the party. But I didn’t say that.
He was thinking. He cocked his head a little to the side and had a vague look on his face. “I think I’m going to wait until after Christmas vacation. I think I’ll wait until then to decide exactly what your punishment should be. That will give you time to think about it too.”
“I don’t need to think about it,” I said.
He laughed and clapped his hands together with a loud smack. “That’s good!” He laughed again. “Do you know what the phrase ‘a hard case’ means?”
“Well, mister, you should, you really should.”
Then he took a small paperback book out of his desk drawer. He handed it to me. It was The Pocket Book of O. Henry Stories. He pointed to the book and said, “O. Henry. A collection of his stories. I want you to read that over vacation. I’ve been thinking about you since we had our last talk.”
I looked at the book. There was a photograph of O. Henry on the cover. He had a mustache and hair parted in the middle and he looked like someone you couldn’t trust.
“I marked a passage in ‘The Gift of the Magi’ for you. I used a pencil so you could erase it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Are you going to read the book?”
“Do I have to make a report on it?”
“No. No report. We might talk about it though. When you come back to school.”
“OK,” I said, “I’ll read it.”
“Maybe you should start now. I’m going to the Christmas party. Karen … Miss McKee will tell you when your bus gets here.”
He left the door half open when he went out.
The passage he had marked read:
“Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.”
I didn’t understand it. I sure knew the difference between eight dollars a week and a million a year. How could anyone make a mistake like that?
Christmas vacation was almost ruined by worrying about the punishment ahead. But it was good that the Browns beat the Rams for the NFL championship on Christmas Eve. And I did get an electric football game and a book on the fighter planes of World War II. And in the early evening, when it was already too dark to be outside, I did force myself to read most of the stories in the pocket book. I couldn’t read them all.
But the idea of the punishment really bothered me. It seemed as if the whole school took what I did very seriously. And if the punishment was serious my parents would find out and that would be real trouble again—especially from my dad.
We got a lot of snow. The road to our place was blocked for two days before the plows got through. Then a strong wind came, blowing drifts higher than a man, hiding fences, burying cars. The snow blew against the side of the house and came through the crack around the back door. The snow piled up to the windows and the windows iced up on the inside and it got so cold the snow creaked when you walked on it.
In the early morning of January second I walked up the road to wait for the school bus. I wore a wool cap down over my ears, a heavy coat, and my dad’s old galoshes. I carried a brown paper bag containing my lunch. The O. Henry book was in my coat pocket.
At school I hung my coat and cap on a hook in the cloak room for our grade, put the galoshes underneath and my lunch on the shelf above. Then I went with the book to Mr. Westlake’s office.
He was waiting for me. He motioned me toward the open doorway of the inner office. He followed me in and we both sat down.
“So, how was your Christmas?” he asked.
“It was OK.” I pushed the book across the desk toward him.
He pushed it back. “No. That’s yours. I want you to keep it—being such an O. Henry expert.” He smiled at me and waited. I didn’t thank him.
“So,” he asked, “did you read it?”
“All of it?”
“Most of it. I skipped a lot.”
“Well, did you like any particular story?”
“No,” I said. But I felt bad about that as soon as I said it so I said, “The one about the yellow dog was OK. And the one about the safe-cracker Jimmy Valentine. I liked that one.”
“I think it’s called ‘A Retrieved Reformation.’”
“Yes, the one where he let the detective catch him because he had to get the little girl out of the safe. But the detective let him go. He pretended he didn’t know he was Jimmy Valentine. That was an OK story. It was about a crook who was really a good guy. I got that part.”
“Would you say that was like O. Henry? That he wasn’t such a bad guy after all?” He leaned over the desk looking at me hard.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe he wasn’t so bad and maybe it was all a mistake.”
“What kind of mistake?”
“The embezzling thing. The book said—in the beginning, in the introduction—it said there was a mix up in his accounts at the bank where he was a teller. And then he ran away but he came back because his wife was dying. That’s how they caught him. But the whole thing could’ve been a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, he didn’t know the difference between eight dollars a week and a million a year. He was just so bad at arithmetic. Maybe he added wrong. Maybe he made a mistake with decimals.”
Mr. Westlake smiled. “I never thought of that. That’s a new one on me. I never thought of that angle.”
We were both silent for a long time. Then he said, “I’m putting you in Mr. Fiorinni’s class. You and Mrs. Evans don’t get along. You’re not really a bad kid but I think you’re someone who’s always going to find trouble. That’s all.”
So there wasn’t going to be any punishment. Mr. Fiorinni’s class was for the rough kids. He wasn’t afraid to smack you or set you off into a corner or even have you sent home. But his tie was always loose and his only blue suit was rumpled and he smelled of smoke and sometimes wine after lunch. He joked around, kidded everybody, and when I reported to him that morning he said, “All right, another rebel.”
That afternoon when I got off the bus the sky was gray, the sun a white smear behind the clouds. I walked along, the buckles of the floppy galoshes jangling, counting my steps. I always tried to get the same number to the back porch. Halfway home, right after I crossed the bridge, I saw a cat far out in a field just this side of the old apple trees. The cat walked carefully on the crusted snow. I stopped to watch it hunt. It took a few steps, paused and cocked its head, and then moved on. I watched it for a long time as it slowly crossed the field listening for mice under the snow. Then I started home with O. Henry in my pocket.
At that time I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to play major league baseball or that I would never be a fighter pilot. I didn’t know then that all there was ahead of me was trouble. I didn’t know much. After all, I was just a kid.