41 Angel in Disguise
Back home in Brooklyn we did things differently. You went to the butcher's for meat, the pharmacy for aspirin and the grocery store for food. But when I spent the summer with my grandmother in Warwick, N.Y., she sent me down to the general store with a list. How could I hope to find anything on the packed shelves around me, everything all jumbled together?
I walked up to the counter. Behind it was a lady like no one I'd ever seen. Fake-jewel-encrusted glasses teetered on the tip of her nose as she read the paper spread out before her. Her gray hair was piled on her head with a crochet needle stuck in it.
Excuse me, I said.
She looked up. "You're that Clements kid," she said. "Your daddy sent you to stay the summer. I'm Miss Bee."
Bee was a good name for this woman. She spoke so sharply that I felt like I was stung. "I had pneumonia ," I explained. "Daddy thought the country air might be good for me."
Come closer and let me get a look at you. She pushed her glasses up her nose and said, "I want to be able to describe you to the sheriff if something goes missing from the store.
I'm not a thief! I was shocked. I was seven years—too young to be a thief!
From what I can see you're not much of anything. But I can tell you've got potential. Then she went back to reading her newspaper.
Never had anyone spoken to me like this! I couldn't wait to get out of this strange store and back to my grandma.
I need to get these, I said, holding up my list.
So? Miss Bee did not look up from her paper. "Go get them."
But ... but, I said. Didn't this woman understand my problem? "There's so much stuff in here."
Miss Bee pointed to a sign on the door, "That's why they call it a general store, kid. It's the only one in five miles as the crow flies , so you'd best get used to things. There's no one here except you and me and I'm not your servant, so I suggest you get yourself a basket from that pile over there and start filling. If you're lucky you'll be home by sundown."
Sundown was five hours away. I wasn't sure I would make it.
I started at the nearest shelf and scanned it for the first item on my fist:pork and beans . It took me three wall-to-wall searches before I found a can nestled between boxes of cereal and bread, on top of some soup cans. Next up was toilet paper. That was a real hunt. I found it under the daily newspaper. Band-Aids—where had I seen them? Oh, yes, next to the face cream. The store was a puzzle, but it held some surprises too. I found a new Superman comic tucked behind the peanut butter.
An hour later I had found everything on the list, except for one thing—bicarbonate of soda . I understood soda, but what was the B word? I would have to ask Miss Bee. I screwed up my courage and approached the counter.
I can't read this, I said, pointing to the strange word I had been struggling with.
Miss Bee wouldn't even look at it. "Well, Miss Potential," she said, "it seems you don't listen real good. If you did, you'd remember the items. I'm sure your grandma told you as she wrote them down. Just like you'd remember me telling you I'm not your servant. Next time you should listen better to both of us."
Miss Bee had stung me again! I stared in amazement and indignation as she tallied everything else up and put my purchases into a brown paper bag.
That Miss Bee is without a doubt the meanest woman I've ever met. Probably the meanest I'll meet in my whole life! I announced when I got home.
Grandma just laughed and shook her head. "She's a character," she agreed. "But she's not so bad."
Not so bad? Grandma didn't know the half of it —I never wanted to return to the general store again. Unfortunately, Grandma had other ideas.
I visited Miss Bee a couple of times a week that summer. Sometimes she shortchanged me. Other times she overcharged. Or sold me an old newspaper instead of one that was current.
Going to the store was more like going into battle. I left my grandma's house armed with my list—memorized to the letter —and the prices in my head and marched into Miss Bee's like General Patton marching into North Africa. "That can of beans is only twenty-nine cents!" I corrected her one afternoon. I had watched the numbers change on the cash register closely, and Miss Bee had added 35 cents. She didn't seem embarrassed that I had caught her overcharging. She just looked at me over her glasses and fixed the price.
Not that she ever let me declare victory. All summer long she found ways to trip me up . No sooner had I learned how to pronounce bicarbonate of soda and memorized its location on the shelf, than Miss Bee rearranged the shelves and made me hunt for it all over again.
By summer's end the shopping trip that had once taken me an hour was done in 15 minutes. The morning I was to return to Brooklyn I stopped in to get a packet of chewing gum. Miss Bee rang up the gum, then poked me with one of her chubby fingers. "All right, Miss Potential," she said, "what did you learn this summer?"
I pressed my lips together. That you're a meany ! The thought popped into my head, where it stayed. There was nothing I learned this summer that Miss Bee wanted to hear!
To my amazement, Miss Bee laughed. "I know what you think of me," she said. "Well, I don't care. Each of us is put on this earth for a reason. Some people will find cures for diseases; others will climb mountains. I believe my job is to teach every child I meet ten life lessons to help him or her. Think what you will, Miss Potential, but when you get older you'll be glad our paths crossed!"
Glad I met Miss Bee? Ha! The idea was absurd. And I continued to think so for many years, until one day my daughter came to me with homework troubles.
It's too hard, she said. "Could you finish my math problems for me?"
If I do it for you, how will you ever learn to do it yourself? I said.
I saw myself back at that general store where I had learned the hard way to tally up my bill along with the cashier. Had I ever been overcharged since?
As my daughter went back to her homework, I wondered: "Had Miss Bee really taught me something all those years ago? Could anyone really learn from a mean old lady who made life so miserable?"
I teach each child I meet ten life lessons, Miss Bee had said. As my daughter went off grumbling , I took out a scrap of paper and wrote down 10 things I had indeed learned from my encounters with Miss Bee.
Yes, I had to admit it. It looked like Miss Bee really had done a great job on me that summer. Sure enough, I had learned 10 life lessons from Miss Bee and they are:
2.Never assume-things aren't always the same as they were yesterday.
3.Life is full of surprises.
4.Speak up and ask questions.
5.Don't expect to be bailed out of a predicament .
6.Everyone isn't as honest as I try to be.
7.Don't be so quick to judge other people.
8.Try my best, even when the task seems beyond me.
10.The best teachers aren't only in school.
Make that 11: I also learned that sometimes the angels God send will be decidedly unangelic!
(By Jackie Clements-Marenda)