Roy Exum: The Last Day Of School

Monday, December 17, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Of the countless stories I have written, the most famous of all is ‘The Last Day of School.’ I have seen it reprinted hundreds of times, in at least a dozen languages, and received letters about it from all over the world. In truth all that I did was write down a story that was told to me, yet in the past 30 years, it has become a Christmas tradition for me to reprint it for those who may not have read it.

* * *

When Tony Campolo was in Chattanooga last week to speak at the annual "Gathering of Men" breakfast, the noted sociologist told a story that begs to be repeated, especially on this day. It seems that there was a lady named Jean Thompson and when she stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall, she told the children a lie.

Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn't play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath. Add to it the fact Teddy was unpleasant.

It got to the point during the first few months that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold 'X's and then marking the 'F' at the top of the paper biggest of all.

Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, nobody else seemed to enjoy him, either. Now at the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child's records and because of things, put Teddy's off until the last. But, when she opened his file, she was in for a surprise.

His first-grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh. He does work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around."

His second-grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is an excellent student and is well-liked by his classmates -- but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle."

His third-grade teacher wrote, "Teddy continues to work hard but his mother's death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn't show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren't taken."

Teddy's fourth-grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is withdrawn and doesn't show much interest in school. He doesn't have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem."

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard on that last day before the vacation would begin. Her children brought her presents, all in gay ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy's, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissored grocery bag.

Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents and some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet, with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and she dabbed some of the perfume behind the other wrist.

At the end of the day, as the other children joyously raced from the room, Teddy Stoddard stayed behind, just long enough to say, "Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to." As soon as Teddy left, Mrs. Thompson knelt at her desk and there, after the last day of school before Christmas, she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading and writing and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. And Jean Thompson paid particular attention to one they all called "Teddy".

As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded and, on days that there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and...well, he had also become the "pet" of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.

A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he'd had in elementary school, she was his favorite.

Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. And then he wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still his favorite teacher of all time.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, that he'd stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favorite teacher.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor's degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favorite teacher but that now his name was a little longer. And the letter was signed, "Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D."

The story doesn't end there. You see, there was yet another letter that Spring. Teddy said that...well, that he'd met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering...well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

You'll have to decide yourself whether or not she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. But, I bet on that special day, Jean Thompson smelled just like... well, just like she smelled many years before on the last day of school before the Christmas Holidays began.

* * *

May your Christmas be shiny and bright.

royexum@aol.com

 



We Need Reconciliation And Not Division

The news is reporting that Mayor Berke is withdrawing city maintenance from the Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery. I would suggest that this move is short-sighted and likely to defeat the very goals the mayor has in mind. There are better ways to handle this.  A recent Marist poll indicates that a majority of people do not want Confederate memorials removed. Even 40 percent ... (click for more)

Calm The Anti-Confederate Hysteria

I am hoping this newspaper can in some way calm this "confederate hysteria" that seems to be steam rolling at a rapid pace.  My family helped pioneer this region and yes....fought for the "southern cause". My ancestors are buried all throughout the area and my family's cabin is commemorated at the Chattanooga/Chickamauga park.  Without exaggeration...I fear my family's ... (click for more)

Government Paid Almost $181,000 In Social Security Benefits To Sewanee Man After He Died In 1988; Hawkins Charged With Embezzlement

The Social Security Administration paid almost $181,000 in benefits to a Sewanee man after he died in 1988, federal prosecutors said. The government learned in 2014 that the money designated to Walter Acton was going to a man living in his home at 3932 Jump Off Road - Edward Hawkins. Hawkins has agreed to plead guilty to embezzlement in the case. Prosecutor Perry Piper said ... (click for more)

Former TVA Engineer From Chattanooga Has Ideal Equipment, Venue For Eclipse Front Row Seat

A former TVA engineer from Chattanooga had the top equipment and venue for the solar eclipse he has been waiting 47 years to see. Bob Anderson, a graduate of East Ridge High and UTC, said he went to the library at the time of a partial eclipse in Chattanooga in 1970 and noted there would be a full one in 2017. He said, "I never dreamed I would get to view it with the equipment ... (click for more)

No. 25 Vols Work On Situational Football On Monday

Tennessee held Monday morning's fall camp practice at Neyland Stadium as coach Burch Jones and the Vols, who are ranked No. 25 in the preseason Associated Press poll, focused on situational football. "Right now, we have to have the discipline to execute," Jones said. "Football is too hard of a game as it is from the technical aspect of things, from fundamentals, effort ... (click for more)

Covenant Names Neal Young Head Men's Basketball Coach

After a national search of candidates, the Covenant men's basketball program has a new head coach as director of athletics Tim Sceggel has named Neal Young the 16th head coach in program history. Young comes to Covenant after spending the last four years as head coach at Goshen (Ind.) College. In addition to his head coaching role at Goshen, Young was an associate athletic ... (click for more)