Neal Lipschutz is a veteran journalist. His short fiction has appeared in several literary publications.
Our fourth grade teacher always waited until after lunch to take our money and purchase forms for the Scholastic Book Club. That meant you had to worry all morning about losing the envelope your parents gave you to pay for the books. But even that couldn’t diminish what was the best part of school outside of recess: buying books from Scholastic. I spent the hours before collection patting my side pocket to make sure the envelope was still there. It got wrinkled up, but was always there. I never lost it. It was exciting enough just filling out the colorful order form, darkening the boxes next to the books you wanted, always in pencil in case you had a last-minute change of mind. Then came the real thrill: having the books handed to you by the teacher when the orders were filled. Scholastic order form hand-in day was good for another reason: it knocked at least 30 minutes off schoolwork time as Mrs. Goodwin called us up one row at a time, turning into a careful accountant as she marked each kid’s order on a master sheet and tore open white envelopes to make sure the quarters and dollar bills were in synch with the cost of the greatly desired books. Once in a while some parent messed up, an excruciating embarrassment and disappointment for the kid involved, who’d have to wait until the next order period if the contents of his or her white envelope came up short.
On one collection day about two-thirds of the class had handed in their forms, including me, which left us to quietly do what we wanted while other rows of students were called to line up at Mrs. Goodwin’s desk. She took the whole thing very seriously, checking and rechecking each child’s order. It consumed all of her attention. We’d already been warned that if we fooled around or made noise after we’d ordered, Mrs. Goodwin would just call the whole thing off. The Scholastic Book Club was a privilege and a privilege could easily be lost. No one wanted that.
When Glenn Steinbach’s row was called up, he stayed seated. Just sat there, looking down at his desk, as if it was some sort of discovery, rather than probably the most familiar thing in his life. Even if he hadn’t heard Mrs. Goodwin, he had to notice everyone else in his row get up and walk towards the teacher.
“Glenn, your row can line up now for Scholastic,” Mrs. Goodwin said.
“No,” Glenn said, very quietly, but since no one else was making noise, it carried through the classroom.
“No?” Mrs. Goodwin repeated, adding a question mark to the word.
“I can’t,” Glenn said, even more softly than the no.
“Can’t? Why can’t you?”
“My father lost his job.”
Everyone looked right at Glenn, including Mrs. Goodwin. She didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, Glenn didn’t know what to do with his head, so he panned the room, slowly, like a movie camera moving back and forth as much as the flexibility in his neck would allow.
Finally Mrs. Goodwin said, “Oh. I am sorry.” Then she turned back to the child from Glenn’s row standing at the side of her desk, eagerly waiting to hand in her book order. The rest of us continued to stare at Glenn. “That’s enough,” the teacher said of our rudeness. “Those of you who have already ordered your books, open your history textbooks to chapter five and start reading. I’ll be asking questions when I am done.”
I slowly and reluctantly removed my eyes from Glenn. He seemed happy to have something to do besides be stared at and imitate a movie camera, so he got his text book out fast and at least pretended to intently read chapter five, like he’d been waiting all day to get the chance to read chapter five.
The next day near 3 o’clock dismissal, Mrs. Goodwin walked up and down the rows of children, dropping an envelope on each of our desks. It smelled faintly of the sweet perfume she wore every day. When she got too close to me, I sometimes started sneezing from her perfume, which my friends thought was hilarious. “Children,” she said, very slowly to emphasize seriousness, “I want you to hand these notes to your parents tonight. I do not want you to open them yourselves. Hand them to your parents sealed like they are.”
Notes home were never good, but since every kid in the class got this one, including those boys and girls who’d rather jump off the roof of the school building than misbehave in any way, I figured it couldn’t be anything terrible, or even specifically about me. When we got out of school, a couple of the braver boys tore open their envelopes to see the big secret. I was not going to do that, but I did stick around to see what their notes said.
“One of our students, who I won’t name, wasn’t able to order from the Scholastic Book Club circular this week because his father lost his job. I hope in the spirit of neighborliness that when the next order period arrives, you would consider ordering a book for this child, or add a quarter or two to your child’s envelope so this unfortunate student can pick his own books to order. If you decide to do either of these things, please mark your form of generosity clearly so I can make sure the ordering goes smoothly. Thank you for your kindness.” The notes were signed Katherine Goodwin, in script. I don’t think I even knew Mrs. Goodwin’s first name. It seemed unnecessary for teachers to even have first names.
I dutifully handed my unopened envelope to my mother soon after she got home from work. She read it while shaking her head. “Oh, that’s a shame,” she said. “Who’s the child whose father lost his job?” she asked.
She nodded like that meant something to her, though Glenn wasn’t a friend of mine and she wouldn’t know any kid who wasn’t. I didn’t think she knew the parents of my friends, much less other kids’ parents. She worked every day and as far as I knew she didn’t have any friends at all in the buildings.
When the next order period came around, my mother remembered the plight of Glenn Steinbach. I handed her my order sheet like normal, with three books checked off, including two Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, my favorite Scholastic selections. “Do you think Glenn would like one of these books?” she asked.
“Because Glenn can’t afford to buy any, we will contribute one of these three books to him. Tell me which one and I will add a note in your envelope so Mrs. Goodwin knows which one is for Glenn, but I won’t use his name since it would be embarrassing for his family if everyone knew.”
“Everyone knows,” I said glumly. I didn’t think it was fair that Glenn was costing me a book, but I knew it would look bad to say that.
The next day, Mrs. Goodwin started the Scholastic ritual by walking over to Glenn’s desk with an order sheet. She spent some amount of time whispering to him. Sue Moskowitz, who sat next to Glenn, later reported that Mrs. Goodwin told him he had four dollars to order with, contributed by the other kids, and that she already checked off the books other kids’ parents had bought for him so he wouldn’t mistakenly buy the same book twice. Four dollars! I only got to spend two dollars and now I was giving away one-third of that. Who knew how many books, like the one my mother was contributing, he was getting on top of the four dollars.
We found out soon enough. The short period between ordering and receiving the Scholastic books made Scholastic seem like the best, most efficient company on earth. It only took a few days before the wonderful book box arrived. No one had ever seen anyone get as many books as Glenn got that day. It was hard to count the spines of those skinny paperback books that Mrs. Goodwin piled on his desk, but there had to be at least 10 books. Some kids said 20, but I think they were exaggerating. Things happened pretty much the same way the next order period, and then the next one after that. Maybe Glenn’s book count went down a little on rounds two and three, but not by much. I was still giving up one of my three books to him.
Walking home after school the day of his third haul, Glenn got stopped by three of the tougher kids in our class. They just suddenly appeared in front of him and kept him from moving. I was walking in the same direction, as were others, and we cautiously moved closer to where they all had stopped. I could see by Glenn’s expression he knew it was trouble and I did, too. We just didn’t know how much.
“How do you even have time to read all the books you are getting?” one kid asked.
Glenn didn’t say anything. He just moved his shoulders up and down for an answer.
“Does your father have a fucking job yet?” asked another.
“I don’t know,” Glenn croaked.
‘How the fuck do you not know if your father has a job?” the kid said, not really a question. “Does he leave the house in the morning? That should tip you off. What’s wrong with him anyway that he got fired?”
All three of them laughed.
“I know,’ said the third tough. “His father’s an out-of-work librarian. He spends all day going through all the fucking books Glenn’s getting. So he doesn’t have enough time to get a job.” The three laughed even harder. Glenn took their mirth as an opportunity to walk around them and continued toward his apartment building. The toughs didn’t follow. Once the drama was over, I walked toward my own building, still thinking about all the books Glenn was piling up.