Monday, May 2, 2011
Deborah is ten years old, a fourth grader at a typical elementary school in a typical neighborhood. In April, most of the students at Deborah's school took the mandated state tests, to assess their proficiency in language arts and math. On the next to last day of the testing period, before the first bell rang, assistant principal Mr. Matthews noticed Deborah sitting alone on a playground bench.
"Good morning, Deborah," said Mr. Matthews. "Why aren't you out there playing tetherball with your friends?"
"I'm not feeling so good," she said with a sniffle. "I sneezed and coughed all night, but I'll be okay."
"You sure? I can take you up to the nurse's office to see if you have a fever and we can have your mom pick you up."
Deborah shook her head, wagging her neatly-styled ponytail. "I can't go home, it's a testing day."
"We don't want you to get sicker though, Deb. You can always make up the test tomorrow."
"I have to stay, Mr. Matthews. I want to win the bike."
In an effort to motivate students to attend school every day of testing, a local Target store donated three brand new bicycles to the PTA. At the end of the testing period, all students with perfect attendance would have their names entered in a drawing, and the bikes would be presented at a schoolwide assembly. For the entire two weeks of testing, the students buzzed with anticipation. "I'm gonna win a bike!" "Nuh-uh! I'm gonna!"
Mr. Matthews reached out and placed his hand on Deborah's forehead. "Well, you don't feel warm," he said. "Go on to class, but if you start feeling worse, be sure to come up to the office. Your health is more important than a bike."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Deborah said with a smile. She slung her backpack over her shoulder and walked off to room 207.
The following week, on Friday, the students who qualified for the drawing gathered in the cafeteria. The excitement was palpable. To a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs," Mr. Matthews and a few student volunteers rolled three bicycles onto the stage.
A black and orange motocross bike.
A sleek green racing bike with hand brakes and five different gears.
A pink "girls" model with a banana seat and handlebars adorned with multi-colored vinyl streamers.
It was the girls bike that had Deborah's attention. As she looked it over, Mr. Matthews walked up behind her.
"Got your eye on this one, huh Deborah?"
"Yeah, isn't it great? I really, really want to win it, but there's so many kids in the drawing. I don't have much chance, do I?"
"I promise you," said Mr. Matthews, "you have just as good a chance as everybody else."
"Yes, I guess that's true," said Deborah. "Oh, I hope I get picked! I just have to win it."
"I hope you do too, Deb. Good luck. Knuckles!" He held out a fist, and Deborah bumped it with her own.
She returned to her seat as Mr. Matthews walked up on stage to start the drawing.
"First of all, I want to thank all of you for coming to school every day during testing," he said into the microphone. "I'm sure your hard work and dedication will help us reach our testing goal for this year. As you know we have three bikes to give away," -- loud cheering from the crowd -- "so let's get started, shall we?"
Mr. Matthews reached into the box of names. He pulled out the first slip of paper.
"Our first winner is a sixth grader . . . is Jeffrey Donahue here?"
Whoops and hollers from the sixth graders followed their spindly, freckled classmate to the stage.
"Okay, Jeff," said Mr. Matthews. "Take your pick."
Jeffrey checked out the black and orange motocross bike -- the knobby tires, the pegs on the rear axle. He walked over to the green racing bike, sat on it and squeezed the hand brakes. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. He gazed back and forth. Racing bike? Motocross bike?
Apparently, the pink bike with the streamers was not in the running.
"I think I'll go with the orange one," he said.
"Good choice!" said Mr. Matthews. He wheeled the bike to the side of the stage and taped Jeffrey's name to the handlebar. Off-microphone, he told Jeffrey that he could call his parents after school to come pick up his new bicycle.
Jeffrey, freckles shoved together by a toothy grin, jogged back to his classmates where he was greeted with high-fives.
"Okay, who wants the next one?" Mr. Matthews asked.
Five hundred students shouted "I DO! I DO!"
He pulled out the next slip of paper. A thousand eyes opened wide in anticipation. In the fourth grade section of the crowd, Deborah thought, "Please let it be my name. Or at least another boy's name this time." She knew that if a girl won, the pink bike with the streamers was history.
"Our next winner is a third grader!"
Cheers from the third grade contingent, disappointed moaning and groaning from everyone else.
Moses sprinted to the stage like he was competing for the anchor spot on the Olympic 440-meter relay team.
"Let me guess," dead-panned Mr. Matthews. "You're going to take the pink one."
"NO WAY!" shrieked Moses. "I want the green one with the gear shifter!"
"It's all yours, Moses, congratulations!" Mr. Matthews taped Moses's name to the handlebar and set the bike aside.
With just the pink bike remaining, the enthusiasm among the boys in the audience waned significantly. Even if their name was picked, would they really want to win a girls' bike? The teasing wouldn't end until they were in high school, if then.
"Okay, just one bike left," said Mr. Matthews. "Let's see who the lucky winner is this time."
He pulled a name from the box. The cafeteria was as silent as a cafeteria full of elementary school kids can possibly be.
"The winner is . . .a fourth grader . . . "
Deborah held her breath. She was a fourth grader!
"It's a girl . . . "
Butterflies invaded her stomach. She was, of course, a girl.
"Congratulations to . . . DEBORAH VELASQUEZ!"
Deborah shot up from her seat. "Yes!" she yelled. "Yes yes yes yes yes yes YESSSSS!"
She ran up onto the stage and gave Mr. Matthews a big hug. "I can't believe it!" she said. "This is the best day of my life! I won!"
"You sure did, Deb. Remember to come to the office at the end of the day to call your parents to pick it up."
Three-thirty arrived. The winners, still giddy, lined up in Mr. Matthews's office to call home with the exciting news. Jeffrey made the first call. Then Moses. Finally, it was Deborah's turn.
"Hi Mom! Something awesome happened at school today! . . . remember the drawing for the bikes that I told you about . . . yeah, that was today . . . well guess what? I WON! . . . no, I'm not kidding! I really did! . . . yeah, and I'm going to give it to Scarlette, okay, but please don't tell her . . . no, I want it to be a surprise . . . okay Mom, thanks . . . oh, I almost forgot, can you come pick up the bike in the truck? . . . awesome, thanks. Love you!"
Mr. Matthews wasn't sure if he heard right. "Deborah, did you say you're giving the bike away?"
"Yeah, it's for my little sister Scarlette. She's six. She's been wanting a bike for so long, but we don't have enough money for her to have one so I told her I'd try really hard to win the one here at school so she could have it. I was hoping and hoping, and I really won! Isn't that great?"
"That's really generous of you Deborah, but couldn't you keep the new bike yourself and give Scarlette your old one? I mean, you earned it with your attendance."
"I don't have a bike at home, Mr. Matthews. I told you, we don't have the money for stuff like that. That's why I had to win this one for Scarlette."
'Deborah, that is the kindest, most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life," said Mr. Matthews. "Scarlette is very lucky to have you for a sister."
"She's a good kid, Mr. Matthews, she deserves it."
A short while later, Deborah's family pulled into the school parking lot in a Ford pickup. As Deborah walked the bike out to the truck, her sister Scarlette hopped out through the passenger door. She took one look at the pink bike with the banana seat and handlebars adorned with multi-colored vinyl streamers, and when her big sister told her who the bike was for, Scarlette broke into a beaming smile.
It was almost as bright as Deborah's.
We hear an awful lot about what's wrong with kids nowadays -- violence, vandalism, underachievement -- and not so much about what's RIGHT with them. The next time you see a news report, or hear a neighbor talking, or find yourself thinking about "those rotten kids," I want you to do yourself a favor.
Take a minute and remember Deborah. And the kindness in her ten-year-old heart.