Robert was wary about starting the second grade. He was accustomed to Mrs. Hail. When he entered the school on the first day that fall semester and saw Mrs. Hail welcoming a new class into her room, he felt somewhat abandoned, although he knew that passing from one grade to the next was the way the system worked. Now he would have Mrs. Arvin, who was older than Mrs. Hail and who sometimes wore a face of what he took for severity.
After a time, Robert adjusted to Mrs. Arvin’s classroom manner and began to appreciate her methods. For Mrs. Arvin, the answers had to be strictly correct. Give her the correct answers, and she was your greatest supporter!
The year unfolded gradually, as did all the years back then. Time seemed to be in no hurry. Each minute was round and full of promise. One of Mrs. Arvin’s pedagogical strategies was to conduct spelling bees during the second half of the lunch period when the weather was so inclement that the students could not go outside for recess. Robert came to look forward to the spelling bees so much that he hoped for rain. On the drizzly days of autumn, he raced back to school after eating lunch at his home across the street so that he could take part in the contests.
The students chose up sides, and Robert felt proud to be one of the first chosen because he was considered a good speller. He tried as hard as he could not to let down his team. He correctly spelled such words as “separate”: S E P A R A T E. One day, Mrs. Arvin gave him “receive,” and he correctly spelled R E C E I V E. Another day, Mrs. Arvin said, “Robert, spell ‘definite.’” He said, “D E F I N I T E.”
On one rainy noon, Robert wolfed down the lunch of chili and grilled cheese sandwich that his mother had prepared and ran back across State Route 26 to the school building. His class had already chosen sides and had already begun the spelling bee. The moment Robert walked through the door, Mrs. Arvin said, “Robert, while you were gone, Susan chose you to be on her team, and it is your turn. Spell ‘twenty-three.’” Robert felt relieved to be given such an easy example. He took his place with Susan’s group, which was standing in front of the chalkboard, and he said, “T W E N T Y - T R E E.” Mrs. Arvin said, “That is incorrect. Robert, you may sit down.” With the blood rushing to his face, Robert stumbled toward his desk and took his seat. Susan was staring at him accusingly. Mrs. Arvin gave the opposing team “twenty-three,” and Alan spelled it correctly. Robert was too embarrassed to ask why his spelling was wrong, but the questioning look on his face must have revealed his bewilderment. Robert felt certain he had given the correct spelling. Mrs. Arvin said, “Robert, you omitted the h in ‘three.’” Although he knew how to spell “three”—and although he thought he had spelled it correctly—he could remember the sound of his own voice skipping from the t to the r without saying the h.
Robert had failed his team, and his chagrin was palpable. He felt his face grow redder and redder. Perspiration dripped down his neck. He had felt so confident, only to have erred and to have disappointed his team. He realized that, in the future, he could not allow himself to experience the luxury of confidence unless he had first taken every precaution to ensure correctness. One of those precautions was to take his time. He had rushed into the classroom, had immediately been given a word to spell, and had hurried to spell it. In the future, he would take a deep breath, concentrate with a steely steadiness, and not speak until he was sure that he could speak correctly. The lesson was one of the most important lessons he would ever learn.
As Halloween approached, Mrs. Arvin hung a cardboard skeleton on her classroom door. The bones of the arms and legs could swivel and hold various positions. The skeleton was taller than the children in Mrs. Arvin’s class. Halloween fell on a Tuesday, and, for an undisclosed reason, Mrs. Arvin had to be gone during the final period that day. Glen Bisel’s daughter, who was a high school student, took over the class. Mrs. Arvin had provided her with a stack of paper from the purple ditto machine in the main office. The pages retained the pungent but not unpleasant smell of the ink. They bore the outlines of a jack-o-lantern. The children were asked to color the pumpkin.
Robert and his classmates took out their crayons and set to work. While Robert preferred to create his own pictures, he enjoyed art of any kind, including coloring within the lines already laid down for him. He carefully shaded his pumpkin to make it as three-dimensional as possible. Beyond the windows, the skies were heavy with gray clouds scudding eastward and threatening rain. The students worked diligently at their drawings and gave their substitute teacher no trouble.
At the end of the period, Robert hurried home. He presented his mother with his jack-o-lantern drawing, which she appeared to appreciate. The evening became blustery. Now and then, the wind moaned. The weather was delivering the perfect atmospheric conditions for Halloween.
On the previous Saturday, after Robert and Charles’ piano lessons in Lafayette, Ida had shopped at the L. S. Ayres store, a branch of the big department store in Indianapolis. On display near the front doors were plastic Halloween masks.
“You boys, pick out your masks for trick-or-treating,” Ida had said.
The masks featured a fuzzy surface that felt almost like velvet when touched with the fingertips. Charles had selected a gray donkey mask, and Robert had chosen a brown dog mask.
When it was time to go trick-or-treating, Ida gave each of her sons an old sheet to wrap around the shoulders, concealing their identities. They had brown-paper grocery bags, which they had decorated with crayon pictures of bats, witches, and black cats. Joe drove them downtown and parked the car up the street from Grandma Rhode’s house.
Robert and Charles happily donned their new masks and wrapped the sheets tightly around themselves as the wind tried to whip the cloth away. They scurried to Grandma Rhode’s front door and knocked boisterously. When she saw them, she stood back in mock alarm and exclaimed, “Well, sir! Who might these animals be? I can hardly guess!”
“Did we fool you?” Charles asked laughingly, as both boys removed their masks.
“You most certainly did!” Grandma Rhode said.
“Trick or treat!” Robert joyfully shouted, holding forth his paper bag and waiting for the popcorn ball that he knew would be forthcoming.
Grandma Rhode and Great Aunt Margaret, who lived on opposite corners of an intersection, always got together to prepare popcorn balls for Halloween. They made the best! The balls were huge, the popcorn was tender, and the caramel was rich.
While Grandma Rhode placed a giant popcorn ball in each bag, Joe and she chatted about the weather and how they hoped the rain would hold off.
With Joe not far behind in the shadows, the boys next hammered their fists on Aunt Margaret’s door. A big smile spread across her face.
“What do we have here?” she asked. “I see a dog. He seems friendly enough. And here’s a donkey. He won’t kick, will he, Joe?”
“Trick or treat!” yelled Charles.
“I think you’re Charles, and you’re Robert. I see that you already have your popcorn balls from your grandmother, and I will give each of you another one.”
While the boys waited for Aunt Margaret to bring the sweets, the wind whistled around her house and dashed her bushes from side to side.
Robert made his popcorn balls last. He ate only one of them later that night and saved the other for another day. They were the greatest treats of his childhood days.
Joe took his sons to a few other houses in town—enough for each boy to gather four candy bars. Milky Way and Three Musketeers were Robert’s favorites.
The next day, as Robert went to school, he felt sorry that Halloween was over, but he looked forward to the lunch period. The clouds were spitting rain, and he thought it likely that Mrs. Arvin would hold a spelling bee.