The Nickel: A Story of How Little Words Can Cause Big Tears
My third grade teacher was Miss Crook. With an unusual name of that sort, some of the kids in our class had the unseemly habit of making up rhymes, incorporating her last name into the literary compositions. Not I, of course! Anyway, Miss Crook was a good teacher and we all liked her very much.
One day she planned a special class project, for which each student was to bring twenty-five cents to pay his portion. As it turned out, after the project was implemented, our teacher informed us that the expense for the enterprise had only been twenty cents, so each of us (thirty students) had a nickel remaining.
She proposed the possibility, however, of a field trip in the near future to an historical site just a few miles from our town. We were excited about that. Miss Crook said that she would just hold on to our “nickels” to help defray the expense of that trip.
For some reason, which remains a mystery to me today (sixty years later), I raised my hand.
“Yes, Wayne, what do you want?”
I responded, with my innocent southern drawl, “How much is five times thirty?”
There was silence in the room. Miss Crook was stunned.
Momentarily she recovered and looked directly at me with a penetrating glare.
“Oh, I understand, Wayne. You think I am just going to keep the nickels of every student in this class!”
I tried to protest, but she hurriedly continued, “Well, Wayne, you can just have your nickel back — right now!”
Upon that she reached for her purse, retrieved a nickel, marched down the isle, and put it on my desk. A knife stabbed into my heart, the pain of which lingers in my memory to this very hour.
The class was dismissed and I ran the one block to our house, crying all the way. I told my mother what had happened and she tried to console me. But I could not be consoled. I was devastated.
Momma then called Miss Crook and told her of my pain and humiliation. Immediately the sweet lady told mother to send me to her house (just a few blocks away); and I was to bring the nickel.
I made my way to Miss Crook’s house; really I was in a daze. I did not know what to expect exactly, but I’m sure I had some idea that the problem would be resolved. I certainly hoped it would be.
When I arrived, Miss Crook met me at the door; she was crying, and so was I. She hugged me and apologized as the tears streamed down her face. I too, in my childish way, told her that I was sorry, and that I did not mean to suggest that she intended to keep the money.
Later, when the field trip did not materialize, my teacher passed through the class and handed each student his nickel. When she came to me, she softly said, “Wayne, I certainly remember your nickel.”
I had no trouble in understanding the spirit of her gentle message.
As a result of that incident, both Miss Crook and I learned a precious lesson. In fact, of all the things I’m sure I learned at her feet, this one overshadows them all.
I learned that even by a subtle implication, though one may mean absolutely no harm, he can wound another’s feelings. Careless words can hurt — even if you don’t intend for them to.
And Miss Crook learned that one should not take seriously the mindless utterance of a little boy who cannot fathom the consequences of what he is saying. You don’t humiliate him in front of his classmates.
Perhaps the main lesson that both of us learned that day was this. It “hurts” you a whole lot more when you “hurt” someone else, than when you are on the “being hurt” end of a situation.
I wish I could say that since that time I have never hurt another soul. But I know I cannot. I’ve tried not to, but failed many times I’m sure. I can say this; I’ve always been very sorry when I’ve learned of my mistake.
Miss Crook has passed into eternity, and I too will cross over eventually. But I can tell you this. That day, so many years ago, my teacher and I both learned a lesson worth far more than a nickel!