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`I'm very proud of you'

SOME days it was an apple, other days it was flowers, and then some days she brought candy. Debbie French, 7 years old, always brought something for our second-grade teacher. She was known for it. In fact, as I watched her pass the daily offerings across Mrs. Jelbert's desk, I used to wonder why our teacher didn't find it embarrassing, overdone. Sometimes the gifts would add up; two days or even three would pass before Mrs. Jelbert would remove them. On May Day, Debbie outdid herself. She brought a dainty paper cup with a bright handle and a paper doily glued to the bottom almost overflowing with a dozen different kinds of candy. The whole first day after it appeared I watched it with intense longing. The next morning when I came into the classroom, I was cool. I glanced at the corner of the desk where the paper cup was. It was still there. I wondered: Would it still be there after lunch? Two hours passed. It was still there.

By 3 o'clock, I thought I might not be able to resist the goodies any longer. I wanted them. I had to have them. I fantasized about jumping up in class and attacking the paper cup. We didn't usually have candy at home, maybe that's why I wanted it so much. Yet here it was -- apparently unappreciated -- probably even getting stale.

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I wrestled with my conscience. Could I? NO, never. On the other hand, she wouldn't notice -- surely. It wouldn't be wrong, then.

I waited until after class. Somehow I managed it. I nabbed the little cup and nobody even saw. The beauty of it was, I reasoned, nobody would ever know.

The next morning, I walked quietly into class and took my seat without even speaking to anyone, careful to control my expression, afraid my secret would break out in little red letters all over my face.

After lunch, instead of taking up the daily phonetics lessons, Mrs. Jelbert got up from her desk and walked slowly to the center of the room -- her lecturing spot. Her face was mysteriously serene.

``I would like you all to put your heads down on your desks,'' she said.

My heart beat faster. Either we were going to start taking naps after lunch or the jig was up.

``Please keep your heads down and do not peek,'' she continued. We put our heads down and finally she spoke, ``There is a thief in the room. . . .''

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Thief! She was talking about me! I had never been so ashamed.

``Yesterday someone took something of mine from my desk. I would like that person to put his or her hand up now. I want the rest of you to respect that person's privacy and not peek.''

This was it. I had to peek. Was anyone else peeking?

``Later I will speak to that person in private,'' she said.

The room was dead quiet. Well, of course, it was.

``I want you to know you will not be punished if you put your hand up,'' she said, ``but if you do not, you will be punished by your own conscience.''

I kept my head tucked down hard on the wooden desk as I felt my right arm raise, slower than I wanted it to.

A year passed in the next minute. The next thing I felt was Mrs. Jelbert's soft palm gently take my wrist and lower my hand. I heard her walk away.

``All right. You may put your heads up now. Thank you.''

So. That was that. I lifted my head, blinking. I glanced around the room. We were all looking at one another with the same question in our eyes: Was it you? To my great relief, nobody seemed to be looking at me any differently.

Later the teacher asked Debbie to stay after class. Then she asked me, in a folded note attached to my homework assignment. I panicked. How could I face Debbie? She would surely tell the others and she would hate me forever. Why couldn't Mrs. Jelbert simply give me a good thrashing and call it even? I'd even replace the cup of candy. And how could I keep my date with Debbie without revealing my secret to everyone?

When school was out, I busied myself with the hamster cages, hoping no one would notice. As the class shuffled out, I kept looking over my shoulder until I knew it was showdown time.

Debbie French stood up next to Mrs. Jelbert's desk, prim and neat in a white blouse with Peter Pan collar and plaid pleated skirt. To my surprise, Debbie looked very pleased with herself -- not even angry. Mrs. Jelbert reached an arm out to me. I cringed. Maybe she'd decided to give me the thrashing after all. Instead, she put an arm around me and the other around Debbie and drew us both to her. I was confused.

``I'm so very proud of you, dear,'' Mrs. Jelbert told me.

I looked at her, shocked. Proud? But I'm the one who swiped the candy!

She must have read my mind. ``Do you know why?'' she asked.

I shook my head. I couldn't imagine why.

``Debbie?'' she said.

``Because she admitted it?'' Debbie said, finally.

``That's right. It was wrong to steal, but it takes a very courageous person to admit to it.''

My heart swelled. I felt warm all over. If her arm hadn't been around my shoulders, I was sure I could fly.

Debbie was silent, her mouth slightly open, a perplexed look on her face.

``I think you have something to say to Debbie,'' Mrs. Jelbert said.

``I'm sorry,'' I blurted. ``I didn't mean it. I didn't think anyone would notice.''

I can't remember what else we said, but I realized then that I would never again be tempted to steal. As for Debbie, Mrs. Jelbert must have worked some magic to seal her lips because none of my classmates ever mentioned the incident again.

Another funny thing happened, too. After that, Mrs. Jelbert started to keep me after school about once a week. She'd ask me to stay and help her water the geraniums or feed the hamsters. When we were done, she'd take me to her desk, pull a small sack of candy from the top drawer and offer me some. Sometimes it was toffees and sometimes it was chocolates. . . .

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