My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley

Walter Johnson Strikes Again

Walter Johnson was the kind of boy who would pull legs off daddy longlegs just to see them suffer–or that was the way I saw him in third grade. He wasn’t especially bright–he never fully did what the teacher assigned. Maybe that is why he had so much time to torture kids like me, who were poorly dressed and had no lunch money.

My earliest memory of Walter is on my first day at East Side School. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, and this was back when classrooms celebrated the holiday in a big way. I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day, and if I had, my parents would not have wasted money on buying cards for me to exchange. This was our third move for this school year, and my mother had just given birth to her fourth baby. Money was even more scarce than usual.

Right after lunch (which I did not have) cards were distributed from the large decorated box on the teacher’s desk. It had to contain well over a thousand cards, since there were 40 kids in the class. As expected, the popular kids received mounds of cards, many with movable parts, glitter and felted patches. Our teacher even received a box of chocolate covered cherries. Everybody had something. Everybody but me.

Folding my arms across my desk to hide its vacancy, I waited for three o’clock and tried to think of the pot of beans Mama was sure to have simmering on the wood-burning stove when I got home.

Then Walter noticed my empty desk and began pointing and laughing. “She didn’t get no valentines.”

Everyone laughed, and I began to cry.

I’m sure the teacher shushed them. She was a kindly lady, though harried and disorganized, but the damage had been done. Walter Johnson had become one of the villains of my childhood.

Flash forward 66 years. I am at a book festival in my hometown, promoting my latest book. Sales are slow. Suddenly a man stops in front of me and stares. Older than me, I think, by at least ten years (I usually think this about people who turn out to be my age). A long lost relative, I wonder. No, there is nothing familiar.

“You don’t know me, do you?” he says.

“No,” I admit.

He laughs and the sound is vaguely familiar. “I went to East Side School with you. I’m Walter Johnson.”

“Walter Johnson?”

He leans close. “You know, I remember a little girl who got no cards on Valentine’s Day. My heart just broke for that little girl.”

“Mine too,” I say.

“Hope you do good on your books,” he says, turning to leave. “Don’t look like you done much so far.”

“You haven’t changed a bit, Walter,” I call after him. And he hadn’t.

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