MORE THAN A NICKEL
The longer we ponder some memories and their related stories, the more muddled the details sometimes become. Often times, the recollections become so blurry that we begin wondering if they really happened at all, or if they are mere remnants in our minds from a dream, a passing conversation or a movie from our past. The saving grace, at times, is found in those precious photographs that someone had the foresight to take. Such pictures can empower us, and those who follow, to revisit our experiences with greater levels of clarity and accuracy and a heightened sense of sentiment.
It was one of my very first days of school. As is traditional, the elementary school I attended was having a fall festival that included a variety of events, activities and contests that lasted over a period of a few weeks. One such contest captured my eyes as I walked up the broad concrete steps and through the tall, heavy wooden doors that appeared to me more made of paint than of wood. The first thing I saw inside was a huge jar of candy resting on a small wooden table. As I moved up for a closer look, my own reflection in the glass jar was quickly replaced with a crystal clear view of the treasure inside. My trance was broken abruptly when an older student asked me if I would like to pay a nickel to guess how many pieces of candy were in the jar. He went on to explain that the money helped to buy school supplies and that the person who guessed the closest to the actual number of pieces of candy would win it all. “Are you kidding me? All of that candy – for just one nickel?” Impervious to statistical odds, laws of probabilities and the likes, I quickly surmised that this was much more than a good cause; this was indeed a deal just too good to pass up. Still gazing at that huge jar of candy, I surrendered a portion of my lunch money for a guess; I don’t remember how I bought lunch later that day. After studying the jar for a few minutes and knowing very little difference between twenty-five and a hundred and twenty-five, I wrote down a number on the little piece of paper for my guess, turned it in and paid my nickel.
I remember going home that afternoon and telling my mother and father what a great investment I had made and how wonderful it would be when all of our family would have this enormous supply of candy at our fingertips for – well, probably a lifetime. It must have been my confidence, maybe my innocence, or perhaps a little of both that charged them to join me in celebrating this – my very first executive decision as a first grader. Perhaps, chastising me for recklessly wasting a portion of my lunch money would have been a more practical response, but maybe they thought that five cents exchanged for a profound lesson on coping with life’s disappointments would be a nickel well spent.
It must have been about a week later when I heard my name called over the school loudspeaker – a thing that no first-grader wanted for – asking me to report immediately to the principal’s office; no one ever got sent to the principal’s office for anything good. I remember walking the long hallway trying to think of what it was that I must have done wrong to land me in front of the principal. When I arrived at the door, I was motioned in and instructed to take a seat. Sitting in another chair close by was a big sixth grade boy; I remember he had a very serious look on his face. The principal began, “It seems we have a bit of a dilemma, fellows. The two of you guessed exactly the same number in the candy jar contest and as luck has it, yours is the closest to being the correct number. I’ve thought this over and decided to have you draw straws to decide a winner. The youngest of you will draw first and the one drawing the longer of the two straws will be our winner”. A little confused about the unfolding event, I tugged at one of the smidgens of straws poking from the principal’s tight fists and sat holding it pretending to have some concept of what was going on. When the sixth grader then took the remaining straw, noticeably shorter than the one I held, I was pronounced the winner and found myself hauling this huge jar of candy back down to my classroom.
Now, I was not always the most popular guy in school, but I can tell you that I came mighty close that day. I still remember the eyes of my classmates when I walked back into the room that morning with hands clutching a massive jar of goodies rather than rubbing my backside as they may have imagined me to be doing. The enormous jug of candy was outsized only by the smile on my face – which may have diminished slightly upon my teacher’s suggestion that I walk around the room and offer everyone a piece of candy.
I remember carrying that jar on my walk home that afternoon; we lived within a block of the school. I wanted to run, but I tried to pace myself so as not to lose the death grip I had on the glass jug. I don’t need a picture – though I’d love to have one – to recall my mother’s expression when I came into her view as she stood on the porch of our house watching me walk home like she did most every afternoon. I honestly think that she may have been more excited than I was. The conversation at the dinner table that evening was great as I told the story about guessing the number to win the candy and then outsmarting a big sixth grader to close the deal.
I don’t know whatever happened to that old glass jar, but I can tell you that for many months, it sat on a table in our hallway sharing tokens of my good fortune to any and all that passed. When the candy was finally consumed, my mother could hardly bear the thoughts of moving it, so she creatively transformed the jar into a place of safe-keeping for our family’s spare change throughout the year. Each night, my father and older siblings would put their loose change in the jar; it became a challenge to see how nearly filled it could be by year’s end. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, our family would gather around the kitchen table, dump the change out and divide it evenly among the children to use for Christmas shopping. For many years, the jar continued to represent giving to our family in this manner.
As I look at the photograph of that little boy holding that big jar of candy, many thoughts go through my mind. I don’t remember what the candy tasted like, how many pieces the jar held or what lucky number won the prize. But the smiling face in the photograph is yet reflected in the lessons and traditions that were secretly embedded within the jar’s contents. Often when I see a small child reluctantly sharing some of his candy with another, I think of the wisdom that my first grade teacher showed as she nudged me to share some of my good fortune with my classmates that day and how good the feeling was to have something to share. To this day, I have a habit of keeping a jar of candy on my desk for visitors. As well, in the corner of my closet, there sits a large gallon jar in which I deposit my loose change each evening. We do not divide the money up at Christmastime, but for years, my children have seen this jar as the little well that never runs dry – though it has been dangerously close a few times – to which they can go whenever they need a little extra money for school or church.
So what if I had never won the candy in my elementary school? What if my mother had not thought to freeze this moment in time with the miracle of her camera? Would I still keep a jar of candy sitting on my desk? Would a gallon jar for my loose change yet be stationed in my closet for my children? Perhaps so; but one thing is for certain, when it comes to the value in reminiscing, the lessons and memories gleaned from a photograph of a first grader and his jar of candy are worth a fortune – or at the least – more than a nickel!