From wickedest boy to boy wonder: 'You never can tell'

The wickedest boy in class arrived at school with the biggest, most beautiful Valentine anyone had ever seen. It was 18 inches high and had a little foldout piece in back so it could stand up like a photograph.

Our second-grade teacher, a veteran of 50 or so Valentine's Days, said it was the grandest card she had ever seen.

Donald displayed it proudly, then put it back in its giant red envelope.

The identity of the recipient was the subject of speculation all morning. Since Donald's only interest all year seemed to be in disrupting the class, aggravating the teacher, and annoying those who sat near him, we were amazed that he brought a Valentine to anyone.

Donald seemed incapable of affection and devoid of kindly inclinations.

He was smaller than the other children, fidgeted constantly, hummed mercilessly, and frequently said bad words.

Certainly, no girl in the class liked him.

At last it was party time. One by one, each child passed out valentines.

When it was Donald's turn, he pulled out the enormous red envelope -- on which he had been sitting for safekeeping. He walked to the front of the room. There was a great hush. All eyes were on him, each child wondering who would be so unfortunate as to receive this large, visible token of Donald's affection.

With a triumphant look, he walked to the fourth row, then to the last seat. With great flourish, he put the red envelope on my desk.

Everyone laughed. Everyone but me. I said ''Thank you'' reflexively -- if not sincerely.

It was my first public embarrassment.

I have shared the story with my children, and sometimes with my students. Youngsters, for some reason, relish this story of unrequited love. But I tell the story not just to entertain, but because there is something they can learn from it.

Donald grew up to be tall and handsome. Although he was never considered a wonderful boy, when he entered the business world he was something of a boy wonder. He is now the youngest president in the history of a prestigious national company. He is a civic leader, recently mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

He is no longer fidgety, has given up humming, and presumably his affinity for bad words has diminished.

The story of Donald reminds children that youngsters do change and do improve.

George Bernard Shaw, speaking to students on the BBC, once advised: ''Some of your school fellows may surprise you by getting hanged. Others, of whom you may have the lowest opinion, will turn out to be geniuses and become the great men of your time. . . . Some little beast who is no good at games . . . may grow into a tremendous swell. You never can tell.''

You never can tell is precisely my point.

Because children are children, they assume that Jeff, the athlete everyone admires, and Karen, the beauty the boys adore, will always be the admired and adored.

And that Allen, the kid who ''acts weird,'' will always be, well, weird. Or, that quiet, colorless Katie will be bland and boring forever.

Sometimes I tell students about the day a little boy asked, ''Mr. President, was you popular when you was a boy?''

And President Truman replied: ''Why no, I was never popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. . . . I was kind of a sissy.''

Or I mention Franklin Roosevelt's comment on his lack of social success at Groton: ''I always felt hopelessly out of things.''

Or I tell them that, like Donald, Sir Winston Churchill was not highly regarded by either children or adults. He was always dismissed as ''a troublesome boy.''

To know this makes popular children pause for thought. They may take a second look at the Donalds in their class, may find in them some redeeming feature, some saving grace.

The unpopular children, who quietly enjoy the story of Donald and the words of Mr. Shaw, take heart and hope that, like Donald, they too may surprise their classmates.

One of my sons, a practical child, is so impressed by Donald's formerly hidden potential, of the possibility of his becoming governor, that he recently asked, ''Did you save that Valentine? If Donald is ever president, it might be worth a lot of money someday.''

I wonder if it's still in mother's attic?

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