When I was in first grade, it was a Friday morning tradition at Riverside Elementary to participate in "Show and Tell", an exercise in confidence-building and public speaking. My classmates typically brought items such as toys, frogs, puppets, ant farms and even weird-looking rocks they had found in their backyards and insisted had been left by dinosaurs. Yep, pretty riveting stuff. On this particular Friday, however, I was going to wow them all with something that no one else had ever thought of. Specifically, I would not only show them the illustrations in my favorite new book, "Peter Rabbit", but also read them the story aloud. I proudly pasted one of my personalized bookplates on the inside cover and dreamt that evening of a standing ovation. (Clearly my sense of theatricality had manifested at a young age.)
My mother dropped me off a little early that Friday. My best friend was already there and insisted that we take advantage of a few glorious minutes of fun on the swings before the bell rang for school. I carefully set my book on a bench by the nearest tree, certain in my childhood innocence that no harm would come to it. When I returned, however, the book was gone. My friend and I commenced a frantic search but to no avail. I ran to class and tearfully told Miss Burris (who looked like Natalie Wood) what had happened. She sought to calm my angst and dry my tears by saying that - since it had a beautiful bookplate with my name on it - it would likely be turned in to the Lost and Found and that she'd help me go look for it at recess.
By the end of the day, my book was still missing. I was devastated beyond words. How could someone have looked in the book, seen my name there, and not brought it back? Hadn't they seen me crying in class? Hadn't they seen me looking in every bush and behind every tree? How could they have not known what that book meant to me?
The worst part was going home and telling my mother, who proceeded to berate me for the next hour for being quite possibly the stupidest and most careless child on the planet. (She was not a woman of patience nor particular empathy.) It was not until this angry juncture, by the way, that I learned the book had a significant monetary value. All right, so how stupid was she in letting a first-grader walk out the door with it? "I'm not buying you another one, if that's what you're thinking!" she told me. I actually wasn't thinking that at all. I just wanted the first one back.
Sadly, it was an experience that colored the rest of first grade for me. Although I was a reasonably happy child and eventually found other scintillating items to take to "Show and Tell", I never looked at my classmates quite the same after that. One of them had a secret. Maybe even a couple of them, for that matter. For all I knew, maybe a gaggle of them ran off into the woods every day after school, made fun of the cute bunny pictures and laughed maniacally about what they'd gotten away with. And yes, I also subsequently looked at my mother through different eyes - a woman who should have understood that these things happen and not been so quick to inflict what might have been lasting damage on my self-esteem.
There was, however, a positive takeaway to all of this. No, the book was never returned nor did I ever replace it. (A copy from the same era sells on the international market for $356.01). What I remembered from that day was the kindness and sincerity of a sweet teacher in her 20's who dried a little girl's tears and held her hand on the way to the Lost and Found. Half a century later, I still remember everything about her. At the end of the day, isn't that really what every teacher wants?