ONE morning, John Evans shuffled into my life. He was a ragged looking specimen of a boy, decked out in oversized hand-me-down clothes and worn-out shoes that split apart at the seams.
He was the son of black migrant workers who had recently arrived in our small North Carolina town for a season of apple picking. These laborers were the poorest of the poor, living a nomadic existence throughout the South as they moved from town to town, orange grove to cotton field to apple orchard.
They lived in dilapidated shanties on the other side of the railroad tracks and spent long, hard days in the sun filling baskets, earning barely enough to feed the family.
Standing at the head of our second-grade class that morning, John Evans was a hapless sight. He shifted from foot to foot as our teacher, Miss Parmalee, penned his name in the roll book. We weren't sure what to make of the shoddy newcomer and, almost immediately, whispers of disapproval began to drift from row to row.
``What is that?'' the boy behind me mumbled. ``Somebody open a window,'' another girl giggled. Miss Parmalee looked up warily, her suspicious eyes peering at us from behind her reading glasses. The murmuring stopped, and she went back to her paperwork.
``Class, this is John Evans,'' Miss Parmalee announced, trying to sound enthused. John looked around and smiled, hoping somebody would smile back. Nobody did. He kept grinning anyway while I held my breath, hoping Miss Parmalee wouldn't notice the empty desk next to mine. She did and pointed him in that direction.
He looked over at me as he slid into the seat, and I averted my eyes so he wouldn't get the idea that I held promise as a potential new friend.
BY the end of his first week John Evans had found firm footing at the bottom of our school's social ladder. ``It's his own fault,'' I declared to my mother one evening at dinner. ``If he wasn't so dumb. He barely even knows how to count.''
My mother had grown to know John Evans quite well through my nightly commentary. She always listened patiently but rarely uttered more than a pensive ``hmmm'' or ``I see.''
John Evans's academic shortcomings helped fuel his classmates' disdain. When asked to read, he labored mightily, stumbling over the simplest words. Simple math problems left him flustered. I began to wonder why he even bothered to show up every morning.
``Hey Robbie, can I sit by you?'' It was lunchtime and John stood in front of me, lunch tray in hand and grin on his face. I looked around to see who was watching. He just stood there with those big white teeth and waited for my answer. ``OK,'' I replied feebly. ``I guess so.''
As I watched him eat and listened to him ramble on, I found myself wrestling with a dilemma. It dawned on me that maybe at least some of the ridicule and scorn heaped on this friendly boy from the wrong side of the tracks might not be justified.
He was actually somewhat pleasant to be around and was by far the most chipper boy I knew, which was nothing short of miraculous, considering his social ranking.
After lunch we joined forces to conquer the playground, moving from monkey bars to swing set to sandbox. As we lined up behind Miss Parmalee for the march back to class that afternoon, I made up my mind that John Evans would remain friendless no longer.
The more I got to know John Evans, the tougher it was to watch him endure his daily mockery. While it seemed to roll off him like water off a freshly waxed car, it ate away at me.
``Why do you think the kids treat John so badly,'' I asked one night as mother tucked me into bed. ``I don't know,'' she said sadly. ``Maybe that's all they know.'' That wasn't good enough for me. ``But, Mom, tomorrow is his birthday and he's not going to get anything. No cake. No presents. Nothing. Nobody even cares.'' Mother and I both knew that whenever a kid had a birthday his mother would bring cupcakes and party favors for the entire class. My mom had made several trips herself over the years. But John Evans's mother worked all day in the apple orchards. His special day would go unnoticed.
``Don't worry so much,'' she said as she kissed me good night. ``I'm sure everything will turn out just fine.'' For the first time in my life I thought my mother might just be wrong.
At breakfast the next morning I announced that I wasn't feeling well and wished to stay home. ``What seems to be the problem,'' mother asked. ``I just don't feel like going,'' I responded feebly. ``Does this have anything to do with John's birthday?'' she queried. The bright-red flush on my cheeks was the only answer she needed. ``How would you like it if your best and only friend didn't show up on your birthday?'' she asked me gently. I thought it over for a moment and then kissed her goodbye.
I WISHED John a happy birthday first thing in the morning, and his embarrassed smile showed me that he was glad I had remembered. Maybe it wouldn't be such a horrible day after all. By midafternoon I had almost decided that maybe birthdays weren't that big a deal, when an extraordinary thing happened. Miss Parmalee was writing math equations on the blackboard when I heard a familiar sound coming from the hallway. A voice I knew well was singing the birthday song.
Moments later Mother came through the door with a tray of cupcakes aglow with candles. Tucked under her arm was a smartly wrapped present with a red bow on top.
Miss Parmalee's high-pitched voice joined in as the class stared at me for an explanation. Mother found John looking like a deer caught in car headlights. She put the cupcakes and gift on his desk and said ``Happy birthday, John.''
John graciously shared his cupcakes with the class, patiently taking the tray from desk to desk. I caught my mother watching me and smiled and winked as I bit into the moist chocolate frosting.
Looking back, I can scarcely remember the names of the children who shared that impromptu birthday celebration. John Evans moved on shortly thereafter and I never heard from him again. But whenever I hear that familiar song I can't help but remember the day its notes rang most true in the soft tones of my mother's voice, the glint in a little boy's eyes, and the taste of the sweetest cupcake.