I rearranged the padfolio, stack of papers, and water bottle on the podium for the umpteenth time as more people continued to meander in and take a seat in front of me. Whew, ok, take some deep breaths. You’ve got this.
I tried to distract myself and calm my nerves by gazing out of the bookshop’s windows which lined the city street. It was a chilly, early spring evening and there was a drizzle outside being illuminated by the streetlights. I was snapped out of my trance by the bookshop owner approaching the podium to greet the crowd.
“Good evening, everyone.” He said and paused to let the chatter simmer down. “Welcome to Beehive Books. I’m Jack Browerton and I’m the owner here. I want to thank all of you for coming tonight. Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to tonight’s guest author, Anna Bensley. Her debut novel, a moving memoir about growing up in poverty, entitled “Where I’m from, I Must Not Stay” became a New York Times Bestseller practically overnight. She’s a fellow Ohioan and we’re thrilled to host her tonight for the first of many stops on her book tour. We invite you to purchase a signed copy of her memoir before you leave tonight. Now, please help me welcome Anna Bensley!”
I was faintly aware of the brief round of obligatory applause from the crowd while my trembling hands adjusted the podium microphone.
I cleared my throat and said, “Uh, hello everyone. My name is Anna Bens — well, I guess you already know that.” I let out a nervous chuckle which was echoed by a few people in the crowd. “You’ll have to bear with me. Writing a best-selling novel is much easier than public speaking, in my opinion.”
Jack, coming to my rescue, interjected from the back of the crowd, “Hey Anna, may I suggest that we start with some Q&A?”
“Oh, sure!” I said, relieved.
“I’m sure the odds were stacked against you after growing up in lower-class America. What inspired you to become an author?” He said.
“I thought someone might ask that question. I’m going to answer it by sharing a personal story, an excerpt from my memoir.” I said. I flipped to page 58 in my worn-out copy of the book and began reading aloud.
I tiptoed across the threadbare carpet of my mom’s bedroom in our dilapidated mobile home, still wearing my pajamas. Dust bunnies were floating through the rays of early morning sun seeping through the window. She was sprawled out asleep on her mattress that rested on the floor. Maybe someday we’d be able to afford bed frames. I felt guilty waking her knowing that she’d worked the night shift at the gas station and only had a few hours to sleep until her day shift started at the local diner. But it was payday and my last chance to ask for some spending money for the annual Secret Santa Shop at school.
One glorious day per year the school gymnasium was transformed into the Secret Santa Shop where students could buy Christmas gifts for their family members at “kid-friendly prices”. I’m not sure which kids found the prices to be friendly but I wasn’t one of them. Each year I left the gymnasium empty-handed while my classmates delighted in sharing their festive finds. Next year I’d be moving on to middle school where they no longer indulge in such activities.
With high hopes, I gently nudged her awake. “Mommy? Mommy, wake up. I need to ask you something.”
She slowly rolled towards me. “What is it, honey? I need to get some sleep before —”
“I know. I’m sorry, Mommy. I was just wondering...um...did you decide if I could have any spending money for the Secret Santa Shop at school today?”
“Oh, honey...I’m so sorry. I was really hoping that I could give you some money for that this year. But things have been slow at the diner recently so my tips haven’t been very good. And someone called from the electric company yesterday, threatening to shut off our electricity if I don’t pay the overdue bill.” She said.
I tried my best to hide my disappointment. “Oh...well...it’s ok Mommy,” I said.
“You don’t need to buy me any gifts anyway, sweetheart. Just make me a beautiful card like you did last year. That’s better than anything you could buy at the Secret Santa Shop.” She said while patting my shoulder. Then she yawned and said, “Now you better go get ready so you don’t miss the school bus.” She laid back down and turned her back to me, ending the conversation.
I returned to my bedroom where a small dresser from the thrift store held my dwindling wardrobe. Besides the fact that I was constantly outgrowing clothes, there was the ongoing problem of them being destroyed by our tenants, the mice. My mom’s meager income had to be carefully rationed between food, utilities, and gas money. Spending money for clothing and entertainment was a luxury we simply didn’t have. The older I got, the harder it was to fit in at school when I looked like a walking advertisement for the local second-hand clothing store.
I yanked one of the dresser drawers open and grabbed the most festive garments I could find, a stained red sweatsuit which was now two sizes too small. I pulled the sweatsuit on and pretended it was an ornate Christmas dress. I slipped my tattered gym shoes on and wondered if they’d get me through another midwestern winter.
In the kitchen, I made my usual breakfast of generic cereal and the last few swigs of now expired milk. On the school bus, I occupied a seat by myself and rode to the school in silence despite being surrounded by energetic conversations. At some point in elementary school, the differences among students became obvious and cruelty emerged. Fact: I was one of the poorest kids in school and I might as well have been invisible.
Later that day, I followed the rest of my class to the gymnasium for the Secret Santa Shop with a sick feeling in my stomach. My classmates were comparing how much spending money they had as if it was a contest. I tried to linger near the back of the pack since this was one conversation I wanted to be excluded from. We were almost at the gym entrance when Sophia Larson, the most popular girl in class, rounded on me.
“Hey, Anna! Good news, I heard they’re going to have a special table this year where everything only costs $1.00.” She said, loud enough for everyone to hear. I stared at my feet, wishing a trap door would suddenly appear there and suck me away. “Oh, sorry! I forgot, even $1.00 would be too expensive for you.” She said with a sneer.
“Sophia, that’s enough! Please apologize to Anna.” Said our teacher, Mrs. Hampton.
“Sorry, Anna….”Sophia said. Once Mrs. Hampton was out of earshot she added, “Sorry that you’re just poor trailer trash.”
My classmates scattered throughout the gym like they were shopping for the year’s must-have gift on Black Friday. Meanwhile, I plopped down on the bleachers and buried my nose in a book from the school library. A few minutes later I sensed someone sitting down next to me and looked up from my book to see Mrs. Hampton.
“Anna, you might run into a lot of people like Sophia Larson in your life. There’s no excuse for the way bullies treat people, but you need to learn how to stand up for yourself. She’s just going to keep picking on you if you let yourself be an easy target. Now tell me, is it true what she said? That you can’t afford to shop for gifts today?”
“Yeah...it’s true. My mom didn’t have enough money for it.” I said, with a sigh. I stole a sideways glance at Mrs. Hampton and decided that she had the kindest, caramel-colored, eyes I’d ever seen. I suddenly felt compelled to tell her more. “My dad left us. My mom has two jobs...but...we’re still poor. It’s not fair!” I said, my eyes welling up with tears.
“You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. But the good news is, you don’t have to be poor for the rest of your life. You’re a smart kid, Anna. You have a ton of potential and if you put your mind to it you can have the life of your dreams when you grow up.” She said.
“You really think so?” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek.
“I know so. Keep doing your best in school, get a job when you’re old enough to start earning your own money, and find something you’re passionate about to study in college. What do you daydream about? What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said.
“Um...I don’t know...I love reading books and going to the library. My mom can’t afford fancy toys or movie theater tickets, but library books are free. Maybe I could work in a library someday?” I said.
“Yeah...that would be good. But imagine if the library was full of books that you wrote! As Norman Vincent Peale once said, ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.’ Speaking of books, I see that you’re reading ‘The Giver’. That book usually isn’t assigned until middle school —”
“I know! I asked the middle school librarian for a book list so I could start reading ahead.” I said excitedly. Mrs. Hampton grinned at me and nodded her head a few times.
“Ok, I’ll make you a deal.” She said, “I’ll give you $10 to buy gifts at the Secret Santa Shop today —”
“Oh, no that’s ok, Mrs. Hampton. That’s really nice of you but I couldn’t pay you back and —”
“Just hear me out. You don’t have to pay me back with money. I want you to pay me back with book reports.” She said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I want you to complete one book report for each dollar I’m giving you. So, ten book reports total and I’ll give you until the end of this school year to do it. Think of it as your way of ‘paying me back’ and beginning your career as a librarian, or author, by reading and analyzing classic books.” She said while she pulled a ten-dollar bill from her purse and handed it to me.
I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. I leaped up from the bleachers and gave her a big hug. “Oh, Mrs. Hampton, thank you so much! I’ll write the best book reports you’ve ever seen!”
With time running out, I browsed the gift-laden tables as fast as I could. I spied a home manicure set at the “Gifts for Mom” table. It brought back memories of my mom before Dad left us when she had the time, energy, and money to spruce herself up regularly. I cautiously flipped the package upside down to search for the price tag, praying it didn’t cost too much. Luck was on my side because the price was exactly ten dollars. Sophia Larson got in the checkout line right behind me and I braced myself for more taunting.
“I thought you didn’t have any shopping money, Anna. That manicure set costs ten dollars, you know.” She said, pulling the same manicure set out of her shopping bag which was bulging at the seams. “Did you steal money from someone or are you hoping they’ll just feel sorry for you and give it to you for free?”
“No, Mrs. Hampton offered to give me the money and I’m paying her back by doing extra credit. Ten book reports by the end of the year. Middle school books.” I said with all the confidence I could muster. Then I turned on a dime, leaving her somewhat speechless for once, and handed the manicure set to the cashier. “I’d like to buy this for my mom,” I said, full of pride.
I took advantage of the free gift wrapping supplies provided by the school. When I arrived home Mom was still working at the diner so I put her gift in one of my empty dresser drawers where I kept it hidden until Christmas morning.
I barely slept a wink on Christmas Eve night. I woke up before Mom the next morning. I made her a cup of instant coffee, some toast, and a bowl of cereal all of which I placed on our rickety kitchen table next to her gift and a handmade card.
I crept into her room and gently prodded her awake. “Mommy...wake up. I have a surprise for you!” I said.
“A surprise? For me?” She said with a yawn.
“Yep! Come on! It’s in the kitchen.” I said, giddy with excitement.
Mom sauntered into the kitchen rubbing the sleep from her eyes. When she saw the display on the table she froze and a silent tear trickled down her cheek.
“What...is this?” She said.
“I made you some breakfast and...I bought you a gift! Merry Christmas, Mommy!” I said.
“But...where did you...how did you buy me a gift?” She said looking confused and concerned.
“My teacher, Mrs. Hampton, let me borrow some money so I could buy you a gift at the Secret Santa Shop —” I said.
“Oh, Anna...you know we can’t pay her back! Haven’t I told you not to borrow money from people?” She said.
“Don’t worry, Mommy! We have a deal. I’m paying her back by doing extra credit. Book reports. And they’re middle school books too! Mrs. Hampton says maybe I could be a librarian someday...or even an author!” I said. She started crying harder and I was having trouble interpreting her reaction. “Mommy...are you upset with me?” I said.
“No honey, not at all. I’m just overwhelmed by how special you are and how lucky I am to be your mom.” She said, smiling through the tears.
Later that night our power went out (Merry Christmas to you too, electric company), so we had a manicure party next to the fireplace while we sang Christmas carols. It was the most magical Christmas I’d ever had.
As for my deal with Mrs. Hampton, I finished all ten book reports with a month to spare so I threw in one more for good measure before the school year ended. Reading those middle school classics gave me an insatiable hunger for literature and set my life on a trajectory that was beyond my wildest daydreams. That extra credit assignment became the turning point when a poor girl from the trailer park began to rewrite the story of her future, one chapter at a time.
I glanced up from my book, expecting to see half of the audience asleep. But to my surprise, all eyes were locked onto me and a few people were even dabbing away tears. A couple of people started a round of applause that swelled to a level of enthusiasm that embarrassed me.
“Oh...thank you...thank you, everyone,” I said, fighting back tears of my own. “Now that I’ve shared that excerpt I’d like to turn your attention to my book’s dedication page.” I said flipping to the beginning of the book and reading aloud, “This book is dedicated to Mrs. Hampton, for empowering me to shoot for the moon.”
After fielding several questions from the audience I relocated to the book signing table next to the podium. After thirty minutes of mingling and signing my hand was cramped and my mouth was sore from perpetually smiling. With my head down, I grabbed another copy of my book from the stack, ready to greet the next person but I suddenly sensed that nobody else was in line...or so I thought. I glanced up from the table and saw a woman standing at a distance, staring at me with a smile on her face. She had kind, caramel-colored eyes.
“Mrs. Hampton? Is that you?” I said.
She approached the table and said, “I see that you landed on the moon like I always knew you would.”
“I can’t believe you’re here!” I said, running around the table to hug her.
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for anything! Now, Ms. Bensley, can I get your signature please?” She said, holding out a copy of my book.
I signed it for her on the dedication page. When I looked up to hand it back to her she was extending her credit card to the bookstore employee seated next to me to pay for the book.
“Nope, I can’t let you do that. This one’s on me.” I said.
“No, I insist!” She said, thrusting her card forward.
“Mrs. Hampton, this is my way of paying you back, for real this time. It’s the least I can do...those book reports...and you...you changed my life.” I said.
She slipped her credit card back into her wallet and pulled a manila folder from her messenger bag. “Speaking of those book reports...I thought you might want these, to see how far you’ve come.” She said, handing me the folder.
I slowly opened the folder to find all eleven of the book reports I’d completed for Mrs. Hampton in elementary school. My juvenile handwriting gave me a chuckle. The margins were chock full of notes from Mrs. Hampton.
“You kept these...all this time?” I said.
“I kept them for this moment. So they could serve as a reminder of everything you’ve overcome to get here and the potential you have within you to keep going. Shoot right past the moon, Anna, and who knows where you’ll land next.” She said.