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December 21, 2012

Wendy Corsi Staub’s Unpredictable Classroom Gift Exchange

Posted by tom

New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than 70 published novels and has sold more than three million books worldwide. Her latest effort, SLEEPWALKER, is the second book in her suspense trilogy that began with NIGHTWATCHER and will end with SHADOWKILLER when it releases on January 29th. When she was in elementary school, Wendy desperately wanted a copy of FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E. L. Konigsburg. Despite a tight household budget, Wendy’s mother cooked up what sounded like a surefire way for Wendy to own the book. But there are some things in life you just can’t predict, as Wendy and her mom soon found out.

Thoughts of long-ago Christmas gifts --- specifically books --- inevitably open the door to memories of my mom. Having lost her a few years back to breast cancer, I’m often overtaken by sentimentality and grief. On this December day, when we’re all still shaken by the Newtown tragedy, I refuse to detour down that dark, familiar road. No one needs a tear-jerker preamble right now. Let’s just go straight to the happy place that beckons like glowing windows in a night blizzard: childhood Christmas.

When I was in elementary school, we always had a classroom gift exchange. I’m sure I experienced it in kindergarten, but my first clear memory was in first grade, when we all had to bring in a wrapped present and put it on the front table, awaiting the party that would take place on Friday afternoon before Christmas vacation (not yet called Holiday Break, even though it was a public school).

My mom had three kids and was president of the School 4 Mother’s Club (this was pre-PTA, when the dads worked and the moms --- but for an unfortunate few --- did not). She was always frantically busy, and always a perfectionist. Yet even in the most harried season of the year, she did everything with incredible flair. When we decorated the tree, she re-hung our haphazard clumps of silvery tinsel strand by delicate strand. She doled out a few cut-out cookies for my sister and me to bury in slapdash slops of frosting while she spread it evenly over the rest of the batch, then dusted each shape with just the right amount of colored sugar. And her gift-wrapping was exquisite: neatly folded seams sealed with tiny, tasteful squares of tape, packages bedecked with bows tied just so, a fat knot in the middle and even loops all around.

I don’t remember what was in the package I brought into my first grade classroom that December morning over 40 years ago, but I know for certain that it was the most beautifully wrapped one there. I was pleased that it was immediately snatched off the table when the first lucky classmate got to step forward and pick a gift, and I basked in the glow of a public thank you. (The gift giver’s name was always right there on the tag so that the recipient could express gratitude --- or ill-concealed disappointment --- right there on the spot.)

Back then, nobody, not even the teachers, seemed to worry about Feelings. Nobody worried about the lasting repercussions for the lone kid left standing on the taped line in gym class, unwanted by either team captain. And nobody fretted over the kid who brought the present some unfortunate classmate only got by default. I, at least, was spared that worry, being the daughter of an Expert Wrapper. However, I was definitely no stranger to the dreaded taped line that stretched across the varnished blond wood of the gymnasium floor. I felt squirmy, that first grade year, for the poor kid who brought that last gift left on the table, the one no one wanted.

The following year, in second grade, my mother --- who had given birth to my new brother just weeks before --- drove me the snowy mile up Central Avenue to the local shopping plaza to buy an exchange gift. I remember it clearly because it was just the two of us, and those occasions had become increasingly rare since the baby came. I, of course, wanted to visit my all-time favorite store, The Book Nook. (I’d go on to work there as a teenager, becoming so close to Mr. P, the owner, that he’d deliver a toast at my wedding. To this day, I continue to return to my hometown to sign every new release at the Book Nook, now run by Mr. P’s daughter, her husband, and their grown son.)

Anyway, as my mom and I browsed the shelves that December night in 1971, I found a number of books I wanted for myself. One --- with the hefty, provocative title FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER --- had a shiny gold emblem on the paper cover indicating that it had won the Newbery Medal.

Even in second grade, being an avid and advanced reader, I knew that meant it was a really, really good book. I read the back cover, and my hunch was confirmed. It was the tale of Claudia and Jamie, a brother and sister who run away from home, hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Yes --- hiding out in.

[One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Claudia echoes her kid brother: “Hiding out in? What kind of language is that?” 

“English language. That’s what kind.”

“Whoever told you that we were going to hide out in the woods?” Claudia demanded.

“There! You said it!” Jamie shrieked.

“Said what? I never said we’re going to hide out in the woods.” Now Claudia was yelling, too.

“No! You said ‘hide out in.’”]

Anyway. Back to the early ’70s, on a snowy night in the cozy Book Nook…

As my mother browsed, I sat cross-legged on the floor and read the first few pages of FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES, careful not to break the spine. I was hooked. I wanted that book so, so badly. But I knew there wasn’t enough money in our family back then to just go around buying books for no reason other than wanting to read them now. Those were the days, long before my father rose through the ranks at the bank where he’d started as a teller, when my mom brought in extra money as a church organist. Whenever she did the grocery shopping, she carried a little red plastic Add-Kwik counter, painstakingly pressing the white buttons to calculate every purchase so that she didn’t go over the cash she had in her wallet.

It wasn’t as if we were living on gruel so that little Timmy could have his operation, but we by no means had a generous household book budget --- or any household book budget. I fed my voracious reading appetite by becoming the library’s best customer, but I had never seen FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES on the shelves there. 

My mom, a fellow avid reader who had inspired my love of books, wanted me to have that book, too. I could tell. But she was helpless, until...

“I know!” she exclaimed. “We’ll get the book as your class exchange gift. And then on Friday, you can choose it for yourself!”

Choose my own gift? But…

Hmm. It made sense. No other kid in my class would willingly choose something that looked like a book. Especially if my mother didn’t entice with glorious wrapping.

“Isn’t that…cheating?” I asked her. This was a serious concern. I was a nice Catholic girl who would be making her first communion in five months, and she was a nice Catholic mom and the church organist.

I remember that she hesitated, then assured me that it wasn’t a sin to choose one’s own gift. She was probably a little worried, though --- as I was --- that we both might burn in hell for it. Though I did consider, in my soul-search for redemption, that we might be off the hook because we were sparing some other kid the squirmy ordeal of bringing in the one gift no one wanted to pick.

We bought the book, we brought it home, and my mom wrapped it. I’m sure the seams were perfect and the tape was perfectly placed, because she couldn’t help herself, but I doubt there was a fabulous, loopy bow destined to lead a hapless second grader into Temptation. It was a plain, rectangular package that looked exactly like what it was: a paperback book.

The next day, I carried it to school and placed it on the table with the other gifts, confident that it would be the last chosen.

Mine, I thought greedily, in my memory’s mind’s eye rubbing my hands together like a cartoon despot. Soon you’ll be all mine!

Sometime in the afternoon, as the classroom party buzz reached fever pitch, I noticed the teacher, an elderly woman named Mrs. Washburn, putting little stickers on all the presents on the table. What, I wondered, was she doing? I couldn’t seem to shush the alarm bells clanging in my head --- and with good reason.

When party time came, she stood at the front of the room and announced that we were going to pass a hat around and pick numbers from it. Whichever number we picked would correspond with a present on the table.

Wait --- what, now?

This wasn’t how it was supposed to work! My first grade teacher had allowed us to take turns walking up to the table and picking a present! That was why I had brought a book! No one else would want a book! That was the point! Only I would want a book! I wanted my own book, dammit --- the one my mother and I had so cleverly schemed for me to have! Now, thanks to stupid Mrs. Washburn with her stupid numbers game, I wasn’t going to get the book! I wasn’t going to find out what happened to Claudia and Jamie! Not ever!

This was the literary equivalent of burning in hell.

I watched, miserable, as one by one, my classmates got to pick numbers, then gifts. When it was my seatmate Karen’s turn, she walked up to the table, searched the packages, and realized that her number matched the most boring one of all: mine.

She unwrapped it in glum silence as we all watched.

WowgreatachapterbookthankyouWendy,” she said dutifully, and I watched her shove my would-be prize into her desk.

Hmm. Maybe all was not lost. We were in Brownies together. Maybe I could borrow it from her. Or would she be suspicious? Was anyone suspicious? Was I still going to burn in hell?

It was my turn to pick a gift.

With zero enthusiasm, I walked up to the table and found the present that bore my number. It wasn’t even wrapped, just sitting there in a shopping bag from the grocery store. Had we not chosen numbers, it might have been the last one picked, even after my book. Inside was a packet of Mallo Cups that still bore a Loblaw’s price sticker.

They were from a boy I’ll call Lancelot. (In this age of Facebook I can’t bear to out him, and there was no one named Lancelot in my elementary school. His true identity is forever safe with me.)

Lancelot had thick horn-rimmed glasses and was chunky enough to wear Husky-size jeans—but would, in one of those poetic justice happy endings, grow up to shed the glasses, gain some muscles, play varsity football, and marry a Popular Girl. But back then, Lancelot was the kind of kid you felt sorry for --- plus, he had a Working Mom, he explained apologetically, shifting his weight from foot to foot when I thanked him for the gift. “She, uh, didn’t have time to wrap it.”

“It’s okay! Mallo Cups are my favorite!” I assured him. “Thank you so much!”

It was the truth. Though I don’t care much for chocolate now, I still liked it back then, and for me, Mallo Cups were right up there with 100,000 Bars and Sugar Babies. I’m sure my enthusiasm made Lancelot’s day.

I went home and poured out the sad saga to my mom. (This was, I should note, back in the dawn of Women’s Lib, before she went back to college and became a Working Mom herself: a first grade teacher at that very school, where, irony of ironies, she would never allow schoolyard picks in gym or classroom gift exchange procedures that might result in hurt feelings for anyone.)

She consoled me, and I’m sure we drowned our sorrows in chocolate disks with whipped coconut filling.

A few days later, on Christmas morning, guess what Santa left under the tree for me?

“Santa knew!” I exclaimed. “How did he know?”

(Yes, I still Believed. I would Believe until the following year, when a fellow third grader I’ll call Damien would ruin the magic for me. But that’s another story.)

“Santa knows everything,” my mother assured me.

And so, I got to find out just what happened to Claudia and Jamie in New York City after all. Years later, I would leave my parents and my small hometown and move --- not run away --- to New York myself. I got married and ultimately settled in the suburbs, on the very commuter train line Claudia and Jamie traveled to Grand Central Station to launch their big adventure. I became an author, just like E. L. Konigsburg.

A few weeks ago, on a sunny November Saturday, my husband and I rode the commuter railroad to Grand Central Station and walked up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Warhol exhibit. I hadn’t thought about the From the Mixed Up Files saga for years, but it all came back to me as I dutifully accompanied my husband to the hall of Arms and Armor, much as Claudia had done with Jamie years ago.

Late that night, I came home and found the book on my shelf --- dog-eared, with the cover, bearing its shiny metallic emblem, long ago torn off and tucked between the pages. Because no one needs a tear-jerker ending, I’ll leave you with the image of a grown woman climbing into bed and rereading the book, remembering that long-ago Christmas and a mom’s special gift.