The Christmas Frog, 2014 First Place Winner’s Circle
By Les Tanner
My name is Nathan Morgan.
Life has been pretty good to me. Make that very good. Still married to my first and only wife, Louise—sixty years this past June 15. We’ve got the usual pack of children (three), grandchildren (seven) and great-grandchildren (four and counting). We’ve got a nice home south of town, our health is as good as can be expected for a couple of octogenarians, and we don’t owe a nickel to anyone. I retired in 1992 after forty-three wonderful years of teaching high school English. I miss the teaching, but retirement’s been great, too.
Every year about this time, though, I get to wondering how different things might have been if it weren’t for that Christmas Eve so long ago…
We moved here from Salt Lake in 1936, when the railroad transferred Pop to the Nampa section. There were four of us then, Mom, Pop, Samantha, and I. Etta Mae came along a couple of years later.
We all liked Nampa. Pop fit in well with his work crew, and Mom enjoyed living and shopping in a small town, where she knew the shopkeepers and they knew her. Sam wasn’t sick all the time, either, as she had been down in Utah.
For me, there were creeks and fields to explore, and most of the kids were nice enough, in spite of me being the new kid in town.
There was one problem. I just plain hated school. I couldn’t stand being cooped up for hours every day when I should have been fishing Indian Creek, or hunting sparrows with my slingshot down by the tracks.
Mainly, though, I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—learn anything. Nowadays, they would say I had one of those “alphabet” syndromes like A.D.H.D., but as far as my teachers were concerned, I suffered from D.U.M.B. I’m sure I spent half my school time cleaning erasers or writing “I will pay attention” a hundred times on the blackboard.
I’m certain the only reason I kept advancing in grades was that none of my teachers wanted me in their classes a second time around.
Things came to a head when I was a sophomore.
My English teacher that year, Miss Arthur, looked like she’d been teaching for a million years. She probably hadn’t smiled even once in that whole time, either.
On the very first day of class she said, “Ladies and gentlemen”—we laughed at that and got a look that shut us up in a hurry—“by the end of this year, you are all going to know how to read and to write.”
We figured she was kidding, because we already knew how to do that, but we were wrong. Not a day went by that we weren’t assigned a book to read, spelling to memorize, or a grammar rule to learn. We had English running out of our ears.
She also assigned a one-page essay every week, due on Friday. She’d hand them back the following Monday, but not before she’d read the three best ones aloud to the class.
Most of what I wrote was junk. I didn’t pay attention at all to spelling or grammar, among other things. Of course, none of my essays ever got read on Monday, and I never got anything higher than a C-minus.
But who cared? Not I. What good was English, anyway? When I said things like “ain’t” or “I didn’t do nothin’,” people still knew what I was talking about.
Miss Arthur was a slave-driver, but I know now that she really did care about us. She could give you a look that would sour milk, but she never once made disparaging remarks about us or our work. To the contrary, she always found something encouraging to say to everybody, even to me about my pitiful efforts.
Two weeks before Christmas vacation, she announced an essay contest, with a five-dollar prize for the best one. The hitch: It had to be at least five hundred words long, had to be true, and couldn’t contain any grammatical or spelling errors.
But five dollars? With that, I could get something nice for Mom and Pop and the girls for Christmas.
Besides, I figured that I owed Miss Arthur something. She’d been doing her best to make a student out of me. It just hadn’t worked, not by a long shot.
For a long time, I couldn’t think of anything I could write fifty words about, let alone five hundred. Then it hit me: I’d write about Pop’s watch.
We’d been in Nampa just over two years when Pop lost most of his left arm in an accident at the yard. Things were really hard for a while, financially, and Pop got to drinking, which didn’t help. What made it much worse was what happened to his gold pocket watch. It was a wedding present from Mom, and it had his name inscribed inside the cover. He was really proud of that watch and showed it off all the time. He lost it in the accident, and he felt almost as bad about losing the watch as he did his arm, but a hobo who knew Pop found the watch in the weeds down near the tracks the next summer, and gave it back.
Pop swore he’d never lose it again, but a week later, somebody stole it out of his pocket when he was in one of the bars downtown, and he never saw it again. Mom forgave him, of course; she was just that kind of person. Pop finally won his battle against “Demon Rum,” but he never forgave himself for losing the watch.
Even Miss Arthur would weep over that. I had a winner for sure.
I worked on the essay every night for a whole week. I even spent lunch hours and after-school time in the school library, using the dictionary and getting help from the librarian. I almost quit a half-dozen times, but I stuck with it and finally got the thing done about midnight the Tuesday before it was due.
On Wednesday morning before school, I read it over three more times. The more I read it, the better it sounded. The five dollars was as good as mine. I could hardly wait until Friday afternoon, when Miss Arthur would read the three best essays and give the prize to the winner.
What a let-down that was. Not only did Sally Pearson, who everybody knew was Miss Arthur’s favorite, get the five-dollar prize, but my essay didn’t even get read.
And when I got it back, it didn’t have a grade on it, just a note: “Please see me after school, Nathan.”
I seriously considered not going to see her. I hadn’t done anything wrong (recently, anyway), but you never knew about teachers.
I eventually decided to go—and things couldn’t have been worse.
“I just want to know one thing, Mr. Morgan,” she said. “Where did you get that story?”
I started to say something, but she cut me off. “It certainly wasn’t written by you. Whoever wrote it not only has a wonderful imagination but is a gifted writer as well. The complete lack of spelling and grammatical errors alone was enough to tell me it wasn’t anything of yours.”
“But I did write it,” I protested. “I worked on it all week. Ask Miss Wilson. She’ll tell you I was in the library all the time. And the story’s true, just like you said it had to be.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, “but I’ve been teaching long enough to recognize a person’s strengths and weaknesses. You are just not capable of doing work of this caliber. Someday I would like to meet its author, though. He or she has a rare talent.”
I don’t recall what else I said that afternoon, but she wasn’t having any of it. She didn’t seem angry, though, just sad. “I’m very disappointed in you, Mr. Morgan,” she said finally. “There was a time when I thought you might make something of yourself.”
Looking back on that conversation, I realize that she truly was disappointed that she had not done better in her efforts to point a very recalcitrant student down a worthwhile path.
But I was young and stupid, and so I reacted as young and stupid folks do. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of school for me. I swore I’d never attend another class or read another book. And I sure wasn’t going to write anything ever again, unless it was a note telling my folks I was running away to join the Foreign Legion.
The idea came to me in the middle of the night a couple of days later. Miss Arthur was going to get a Christmas present she’d never forget.
She had told us once that she was terrified of things like frogs and toads because of something—I don’t remember what—that had happened when she was little.
That summer, I’d caught and killed a monstrous bullfrog down by the creek. I’d put it in a big pickle jar with a lot of rubbing alcohol and hid it in the garage. I’m not sure why. Just one of those things kids do.
Anyway, the next morning I went out to the garage and got the jar, put it in a cardboard box with a lot of wadded-up newspaper, and wrapped the box in some green paper Mom had saved. I tied it up with some red ribbon, stuck a “MERRY CHRISTMAS” label on it, and put it back where I’d hidden the jar.
I was planning to deliver it on Christmas Eve, but I couldn’t wait, so one evening after supper, three days before Christmas, I retrieved the box, sneaked over to Miss Arthur’s house, put it on her doorstep and rang the bell. Then I ran across the street and hid behind a tree.
I saw her come out and pick up the box. She looked up and down the street for a bit, then went back inside.
I couldn’t help but grin. Nothing like a pickled frog to put the Christmas spirit in a person.
On Christmas Eve, we’d just sat down to listen to Pop read “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” when the doorbell rang. Sam and Etta Mae raced to answer it, but when they came back, they said there wasn’t anybody there.
“There was just this,” said Etta Mae, holding out something that I couldn’t see from where I was sitting.
“There’s a card on it, too,” said Sam. “It just says ‘Merry Christmas’.”
“My Goodness,” said Mom. “What a nice thing for someone to do.”
But when my little sister handed the present to Mom, I saw what she was holding—and I thought I was going to die right on the spot.
It was a box wrapped in green paper and tied up with a red ribbon! Old lady Arthur had turned the tables on me.
“Let’s open it now so we can see,” said Etta Mae.
Mom hesitated. We usually waited until Christmas morning to open presents, but Pop said, “Go ahead, Polly. I’m curious, too.”
Mom set the box on the table, untied the ribbon, took off the paper, and opened it. She pulled out some newspapers, and then a jar. It was the same jar, but there wasn’t any liquid in it. Instead, it contained something wrapped up in white tissue paper. Maybe the frog—but probably something a whole lot worse!
“There’s a note on the lid,” said Mom. “It says, ‘For Carl Morgan’.”
Carl was Pop’s name. So it wasn’t meant for me after all.
Then it dawned on me. Miss Arthur was making sure my folks knew what I’d done. I was one dead duck.
“Well I’ll be,” said Pop. “Open it for me, please, Hon.”
When Mom unscrewed the lid, I flinched I had no idea what was in there, but I was sure that it would smell really bad.
She poured the object out into her hand and gave it to Pop, who held it between his knees as he unwrapped the paper.
I was afraid to watch. Instead, I picked up the empty box for something to do, and there in the bottom was a small envelope with “For Nathan” written on it. I picked it up and was about to open it when I heard Pop exclaim, “Oh my, oh my, OH MY! I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it!”
I looked over to see what kind of trick Miss Arthur had pulled—and I couldn’t believe what I saw, either.
Lying there in the tissue on Pop’s lap was his gold watch!
They never did find out how the watch got there, and I have never told anyone before this very minute.
The note explained it all, but no one had seen me pick it up. After I’d read it over a dozen times in my room that night, I put it in my keepsake box, where it remains to this day.
“Dear Nathan,” it says.
“Yesterday I stopped in at the jewelry shop looking for a gift for my father. The jeweler showed me a gold watch that had come into his possession that very morning, along with other things he’d recently purchased from a pawn broker. He offered it to me at a price I just couldn’t resist. It was only after I got home and looked at the watch more closely that I found an inscription on its inside cover—and realized it was exactly like the watch that was described in your essay.
Had I made a dreadful mistake by taking you to task? I called Principal Thornton about what I might do. He said that you’ve always been completely honest with him and your other teachers, and suggested I talk to Emily Wilson. She told me that the week before the essays were due you’d spent hour after hour in the library, working on some sort of project, and that you’d asked her dozens of questions regarding writing and grammar. I asked her about your father, too, and she said that he has only one arm.
I knew then that I owed you a huge apology, but I honestly had no idea how to go about it. And then when you left your special “gift” on my doorstep—yes, Nathan, I saw you put it there—it came to me how I might begin to make up for my unforgivable behavior in some small way.”
It is signed “Mary Belle Arthur.”
“P.S. Please come by for cider and donuts one of these days before classes begin again, and we will talk about Christmas frogs—and school and essays and other things, too. I meant what I said that afternoon, Nathan. The author of that story truly does have a rare talent. I think he might even have the stuff it takes to be an English teacher some day.”