I turned onto Jefferson Street by Washington School. It occurred to me for the first time that Washington School was on Jefferson Street. I don’t know why, but I had always assumed that Jefferson Street was named after our high school, Jefferson Senior High. Ridiculous, I know. But stranger still to me is that the street remains, while Washington Elementary is now a building of condos, and Jefferson Senior HIgh is an empty lot with a pile of dirt. A big pile of dirt.
It was at Washington Elementary, in the first grade, with Mrs. Bergstrom that I first learned the value of money. She surprised us one day with a piece of paper that would change my life. It was the Weekly Reader — a small newsletter for children. Inside this Weekly Reader, if you had permission from a parent, and the money, you could order books. Small paperbacks usually. But to me, they seemed like gold. My mother never hesitated. Of course you can order one she said. Of course — I had never loved her more. I ordered The Big Pile of Dirt by Eleanor Clymer. (I still have it.) The story is about the hopes and imaginations of a group of children living in the city. They have to make do with the limited circumstances of their childhood, but they don’t see it as a limitation – they have a big pile of dirt in their neighborhood and they love it. I never knew that we were poor. I never saw it that way. We had enough money to buy books. And within those books, there were no limitations. When the first order of books came, to the door of our classroom, I held my breath. Mrs. Bergstrom put the cardboard box on her desk. Opened her locked drawer and pulled out letter opener. Slid it along the taped edged. My heart raced. Other kids were talking. Didn’t they see what was about to happen??? Why weren’t they paying attention? The cardboard creaked as she unfolded the top. She pulled out the paper that was used for packing. She removed the stack of books. Mine was in there. Mine! In there! Not everyone ordered. I felt badly for them. Even those in their designer shoes, didn’t see how rich we really were. When she handed me The Big Pile of Dirt I held it with both hands. Felt the smooth gloss of the cover. Smelled the ink, still alive on each page. Clutched it to my heart. I had everything.
I wasn’t sad, passing the big pile of dirt yesterday. In my youth, I never saw the limitations, so why should I start now? Maybe it’s appropriate that it comes back to this — this beautiful pile of dirt. All things were possible before. And they will be again. I clutch the memories close to my heart, and drive into the new day. I have everything.