When I was in first grade at Riverside Elementary there was a Friday morning tradition called “Show and Tell” in which everyone was supposed to bring in something interesting to talk about. This ran the gamut from toys and puppets to frogs, ant farms and weird looking rocks from the backyard, many of the latter purported to be genuine dinosaur parts. On this particular Friday, I intended to wow my classmates with something extraordinary. Not only would I show them the color illustrations from my “Peter Rabbit” book but I would also read the story aloud to them. The night before, I carefully pasted one of my personalized bookplates into the front cover and fell asleep dreaming of the standing ovation I was sure to receive. (Clearly my sense of theatricality was honed at a young age.)
My mother dropped me off at school early that day. Since my best friend was already there, we decided to steal a few extra minutes of fun on the swings before the bell rang. I carefully set my book on a bench by a tree and ran off to play, certain in my childhood innocence that no harm would come to it. When we returned, however, the book was gone. My friend and I commenced a frantic search but to no avail. Tearfully, I ran to the classroom to tell my teacher what had happened. Miss Burris (who looked like Natalie Wood and had a fondness for sweater sets) listened sympathetically, dried my tears and promised to help me look for it at recess. Since it had a bookplate with my name on it, she said, someone would easily know to whom it belonged and I’d likely have it back in my possession by day’s end.
The book wasn’t there. Nor did it turn up after lunch or second recess. I was devastated. Just before my mother picked me up, I did one more search of the school yard but this, too, yielded nothing. The worst of it was getting in the car and having to tell her it was gone. For at least the next hour she berated me for being quite possibly the stupidest and most careless child on the planet. (She was not a woman of great patience or empathy, as you may have gathered.) It was also at this angry juncture I learned that my copy of “Peter Rabbit” had a significant monetary value. All right, so how stupid was she to let a first-grader out of the house with it? “I’m not buying you a second one if that’s what you’re thinking!” she told me. Actually I wasn’t thinking that at all. I just wanted the first one back.
Sadly, it was a loss that colored my impressions of school for the rest of the year, specifically, my feelings toward my classmates. Although I was basically a happy child and eventually found all manner of scintillating items to yak about on Friday mornings, I never looked at any of my peers in quite the same way after the Peter Rabbit incident. Hadn’t they seen me crying? Hadn’t they seen me continuing to search every bush and tree and bench for weeks thereafter? Didn’t they know how much that book meant to me? One of them, I realized, had a secret. Maybe even a couple of them. For all I knew, maybe there was even a gaggle of them that stole off to the woods every day after school to laugh at the bunny pictures, smoke cigarettes and laugh manically about hurting my feelings. (All right, maybe cigarettes is a bit of a stretch but anyone who would steal a bunny book is not beneath other unsavory vices.) Suffice it to say, it also changed the way I looked at my mother – a woman who should have had the sensitivity to understand that these things just happen instead of inflicting what might have been lasting damage on my self-esteem.
The book was never returned. Nor did I ever replace it even as an adult. (On the international market, a copy from the same era is now selling for $365.01.) There was, however, a positive takeaway. When I look back on that day, I remember a very sweet teacher in her 20’s who took the time to care about me, to reassure me and to hold my hand all the way to the Lost and Found. Fifty years later I still know her name and can still picture everything she ever taught me. At the end of the day, isn’t that really what every teacher wants?