As a child, I played with a small group of kids. This was because almost all of the children I knew attended our church-school, and most of those also attended our church as well. Some came and went, but a core group of us remained year after year, as familiar with each other as with cousins. Some were my dearest friends, some I hated and feared, and some I ignored. But no one could be avoided for long, because we were together so much.
I was never one of the most popular kids in our group, but I had an accepted position, probably because a) my father was the pastor of the church and thus in charge of the school; and b) I did know how to act in a socially acceptable way (most of the time.) When my father introduced me to Becky, I knew two things without being told: that he wanted me to be nice to her, and that the reason I needed to be nice to her was that she wasn’t going to fit in on her own. This was because it was clear that she was different—that kiss of death in the child’s social order.
It was also obvious that Becky didn’t have the same kind of parental attention directed at her that I did. Her cheap clothes hung awkwardly on her narrow shoulders. They didn’t always match. She wasn’t dirty, but I could see that no one ever chased her around with a comb, either. Her almost colorless eyes were magnified behind enormous round plastic glasses (oh, those terrible crimes inflicted by ‘80s fashion). And Becky was painfully shy. When we played together, I was the leader. She was willing to play whatever games I devised, hardly speaking. Every once in a while, though, a smile crossed her face, showing her small, grayish teeth, before she hid her mouth behind her hand, afraid to show too much joy, lest it be taken away.
I was conscious of feeling pride and responsibility, that my father had silently given me a mission: to Include Becky. I knew I was up to the task. I sought her out at church, invited her to sit next to me in Sunday School. I dragged her over to my friends after church, indicating that she was now A Part of our group.
It didn't work all that well. For one thing, my friends didn't act hostile toward Becky, but they seemed puzzled as to why we needed to pay attention to her when she didn't have anything to say and was barely willing to participate in our elaborate games of make-believe. Becky had simply been on the outside so long that when invited in, she didn't know how to behave. As weeks went by, I found it easier to stop trying so hard. I let Becky drift while not completely rejecting her--thank goodness I wasn't capable of being that cruel.
Christmastime was approaching, and my father and I were going shopping for some presents I needed to buy. It's the only time I can remember us going out on this kind of shopping trip together. I needed to buy the requisite $5.00 gifts for church and school gift exchanges, and somehow the idea was born that I would also choose a present for Becky. I am almost positive that this was my father's idea; I don't think I ever would have thought of it myself. But once he presented it, I was excited about it, since I didn't have my own money and hardly ever bought anything for anyone.
We went to a five and ten cent store. (Remember those? Now they've been replaced by dollar stores.) I looked around at all the choices and finally selected a plastic purse for Becky. At that age, I thought that having one's own purse was the epitome of being grown-up. I don't remember if it came with anything like a fake lipstick or keys (I know there wasn't a cell phone, because they didn't exist) but my father thought it was a fine choice.
The next Sunday was the last one before Christmas. I approached Becky and said something like, "I have something for you." All of a sudden I felt as shy as the girl in front of me. I realized that by handing her the present my mother had wrapped for me, I was running a risk. She might be thrilled to get another present when she didn't get very many at home, or she might feel horrible that I had gotten her a present when she obviously couldn't afford to get me one.
Amazingly, though, she said, "I have something for you, too."
As she opened my present and oohed and aahed over the purse, I stared at the small yet heavy object she had placed in my hand. It was wrapped in a scrap of newspaper and covered in too much tape, obviously stuck there by Becky herself. I pulled off the paper to find a silver dollar, one of the few I'd ever seen. I knew in one of those inexplicable flashes of insight that seem to light up the world that this was one of her only treasures.
And she had given it to me.
I didn't deserve it. I knew that with the same searing clarity. What had I done? I had only done my duty because my father asked me to. I would have never thought of befriending her, let alone buying her a present, if it hadn't been for him. He'd even paid for the present. Giving it to her had cost me nothing.
Her present had cost her much more. But she wanted me to have it, because I had been friendly to her. She didn't know that when I included her, I was feeling smug and proud of myself for including someone so obviously beneath me socially. Look at me, I was thinking, being nice to the poor little girl.
Becky wasn't poor. She was rich in ways I couldn't then imagine.
I don't remember seeing Becky again. I'm sure I did--but I can't remember anything but that moment of shame and gratitude that let me see myself as I really was. It's certain that before long, her family moved away (something that they apparently did a lot, which couldn't have helped her shyness) and I lost the chance to make a true friend of her.
Yet for years I kept that silver dollar in my most cherished hiding place, and I have never forgotten what Becky taught me.