The One Hundred and Forty-Second Chart

September 26, 2014

By Ekta R. Garg

Every year the publishing company Scholastic holds fairs at schools across the country to give children and parents firsthand access to their books. Scholastic sends boxes of books and kits to help volunteers conduct book sales, and the school gets part of the proceeds. At my daughter’s school, the volunteer coordinator asked for parents to help with the sale before, during, and after school, and I signed up for both sales last year as well the sale happening this week.

I signed up for the lunch shift for logistical reasons. I couldn’t sign up for the sale before or after school because the girls go to different schools and I have to drive to different schools at the start and end of the school day. Going to the school for the fair in the late morning works better with my own schedule.

Plus, kids at lunchtime only pay with cash. Cash transactions are much less complicated to handle than those that occur with a credit card or a check. And kids are so much more fun to watch.

The kids have to follow one main rule at lunchtime: if they want to browse through the books in the multi-purpose room where they eat lunch, they actually have to eat their lunch first. Browsing the book sale cuts into their recess time, but most of them find the novelty of the sale hard to resist. They don’t mind giving up a few minutes of playtime to flip through coveted titles or new finds.

Scholastic definitely offers a wide range of books. This is, after all, the company that gave us Where the Wild Things Are (which inspired this short story of mine,) Three Times Lucky, and The Hunger Games. The company also makes available dozens of educational choices on everything from dinosaurs to rocks to cooking.

Last year, as a kindergartner, Six asked whether she could buy something, and during one of my shifts I picked up a few of the free bookmarks and bought some erasers in the shape of animals. That seemed to appease her for the time being. This year, though, she stayed persistent.

It didn’t help that I mentioned to the kids a book one of my best friends (a teacher) had recommended for them. The book is called Tuesdays at the Castle, and it’s about a castle that changes its rooms every Tuesday. No one knows why, and the castle uses its unusual magic to try to help the little girl in the family solve a mystery.

Six has been begging me ever since I mentioned the book on Monday to buy it. Somewhere along the way the plea for the book turned into a plea to take money to school so she could purchase the book on her own.

“Why do you want to buy it yourself?” I asked.

“Because I want to be a grownup,” she replied sagely.

I thought about it, and I realized that this might be a good thing for her to experience. So I made her a deal: I would let her take money to school on the day I went back to volunteer so I could help her through the transaction. I didn’t want her to feel shy with whoever else might have run the till, but I also wanted to watch this “first” in her life for myself.

She must have reminded me to give her money for the book at least 20 times, and every time she did I told her with patience that I would give it to her on Thursday night or Friday morning. I dropped a twenty in a Ziploc bag, took a deep breath, and made sure to put the bag under all of the items in her lunch box. I figured it had a better chance of staying in her lunch box if I weighed it down with a juice box and a container of fruit.

On Friday while taking a shower before school, Six looked at me and said, “Thanks for letting me buy a book today.”

It was one of those little melt-your-heart-moments that makes parenting worth it.

I couldn’t help grinning as I drove to the school. When I arrived I spent a few minutes chatting with the other mom who had volunteered for the lunch shift, and after a little while the kindergartners and first graders came into the large room and began making their way to the lunch tables. Six spotted me, and the smile on her face stretched all the way across. She trotted to me and gave me a hug. I told her to finish her lunch so she could get her book.

She actually took her time eating her meal. After all, lunch is as much about socializing as anything else. It’s one of the few times during the day when Six can sit with her BFF and the two can chatter freely. I watched as she interacted with her classmates and felt a sense of nostalgia for a few moments for my own days in school.

When she finished her lunch, she jogged to the stack where copies of Tuesdays at the Castle sat and picked one up. She came back to the table where the cash register sat, and I teased her that the other mom working the sale with me couldn’t sell the book to a child missing a tooth. Six just rolled her eyes good-naturedly and took out her money to pay.

She watched the entire transaction with interest, and when she got the change back she hesitated.

“Do you want me to take the change for you?”

She thought about it and then nodded. “Yes, you keep the change.”

We had a discussion about what to do with the book. She wanted to take it to what was left of recess and start reading, but she didn’t have a way to carry it. I asked her if she wanted me to take the book home, and she shook her head. She knew for sure she wanted to keep it with her.

Ah, that new purchase rush.

After a few minutes we figured out that the book would fit in her lunch box, which sits tall. I helped her put in there, and she and her BFF skipped out the door. They didn’t even bother with a second look back, but it didn’t matter. The smile she’d given me when she first entered the room had been worth the whole thing.

I’m so glad I got to see it. On days when the kids become especially fractious, smiles like those carry me through. And I hope we’ll get to experience other firsts together like this one.

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