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The Corsage

All over the campus there was talk of territories, goals, and "Where are the sack lunches?" It was the dawn of fund-raising field day, without a cloud in the autumn sky.

I was a team leader and had chosen a group of my best friends to make up what seemed to me an almost unbeatable team. We all wanted to work as hard as we could and bring back as much money as possible from our territory. Now we were sitting in the sleek blue station wagon while our driver studied a road map.

Someone came running over the hill from the boys' dormitory. He arrived at the center of all the activity and then stood awkwardly catching his breath and pulling at his necktie patterned with green flying birds. The school year was only a month old, and this was his first year at our school, but I knew him from our biology class, where he was called William the wizard.

There was something almost wistful in his manner as he stood there trying to appear nonchalant. Now he was cleaning his thick glasses with his handkerchief. And that did it. I wear glasses too, and when I am miserably nervous, uncomfortable, and unsure, the one thing I do, without even half knowing what I am doing, is clean my glasses. This is the only way I can account for my action of that morning. I leaned out the window and called, "William!"

Jan, sitting next to me, pulled me back into the car with a sturdy yank on my arm. Someone in the back seat groaned. Jan's brother Ralph was the only decent citizen. He said, "Let him come; what's the harm? We have room for one more. He's a little bit odd, but he's kinda fun."

By this time William had his glasses back on and had located my waving hand. He was so happy to be going with us that as soon as he got in the car, he started cleaning his glasses again.

Well, we had a very good day. William turned out to be a hard worker and such a sincere person that the others in our team accepted him as a friend. I guess it was with them as it was with me-William's odd appearance wasn't so noticeable after I glimpsed his heart. Jan, who was timid about meeting strangers, decided to go along with William before the day was over "to keep him from cleaning his glasses during fund-raising appeals at the doors." Without William's help we couldn't have had the honor of being the car with the next-to-highest amount of money at the end of the day.

Things went back to the usual grind after field day. My biology grades did improve, however, because William showed me where to find the required specimen that before had eluded me completely. He explained again and again the things that were so simple to him and so inscrutable to me.

During the next month several students in the school became ill. I was one of the unfortunate ones. The school nurse said something mysterious about a virus, but I don't remember any of the symptoms now except that I coughed a lot and felt dizzily miserable.

One day my best friend, Kay, came in carrying a strange paper bag. A smothered laugh was on her face. "Hello, invalid," she said, "your pallid face shall trouble you no more."

"It's not the face that bothers me," I interrupted. "It's the cough and the inconsiderate friends."

"Please," Kay said, unable to keep her secret any longer, "nothing shall trouble you anymore. Lo!" And she tore away the wrinkled paper bag to reveal a bottle of dark liquid. "It's from William. Yesterday he cross-examined me about your symptoms, and today after class he gave me this herb brew." Kay sat down on my throw rug and gave herself to laughter.


I had to laugh too. Finally she said, "You're supposed to drink half now and half this evening at 6:00. Why don't you go ahead and drink the stuff-if you can. Just for fun."


I was ready to try anything, so I drank the brew. The next morning I felt like mountain climbing, and within 24 hours the nurse let me up. The others who were ill stayed in bed for another week. Although everyone else laughed at William when he returned from the woods damp and dirty with baskets of roots and weeds, I couldn't laugh.


Dream date


Since the beginning of the year I had had a growing interest in a tall, quiet young man who sat on the back row of my English class.His name was Jon, and it seemed to me that he was the nicest, and unfortunately, the shyest boy in the whole school. Sometimes the teacher read a few chosen compositions aloud, and his was always included. Just from these thoughtful, well-written themes I wanted so much to be friends with Jon. But he was a village student and worked most of his way through school. He had several major hobbies and didn't often come to social gatherings at the school. It seemed improbable that we would ever become better acquainted.


And then the boys' reception was announced for a date only a little more than a month away. In the girls' dormitory there was constant conversation about who was being invited by whom, and who wanted to be invited by whom. There was an atmosphere of suspense, secrecy, advice-giving, and giggling that could not possibly belong to any period of the school year except the weeks just before the boys' reception.


I was certainly not above the general atmosphere. At piano practice, while I ironed shirts in the student laundry where I worked, during study period, I found myself doing strange things. It was as if my mind would not stay on the task at hand; instead, I kept thinking up impossible situations and improbable conversations in which the wonderful Jon would invite me to be his date at the boys' reception. I even saw myself floating to the reception in Jon's company and in my almost-new pink gown given to me by my cousin Susan.


Days dragged by. My hopes flourished, for, after all, Jon did speak to me by name when we met in the hall between classes. And once in the library when he had been absent for a day, he asked to borrow my English notes. Of course, I had drawn some pretty ridiculous doodles around the margin of my notes for that day, but he hardly seemed to notice and said "Thank you" most royally as he returned them.


And then one day in biology lab William altered my daydreams considerably. He mumbled, "About the reception-uh, would you mind-uh, that is, could we go to it together?" And he must have been cleaning his glasses again, because despite the polite rejections that came into my mind, none of them would fit into my mouth. All I could say was "Sure, William."


I even developed a little philosophy about the situation on a quiet walk alone afterward. After all, William was a good person. He was just a little different, maybe, but he was my friend. And if I said I would go to the reception with him, then it would be disloyal to make a joke of it.


But philosophies woven on quiet walks have a way of wearing thin in the tough going of a dormitory. What a jolly time there was in the washroom that evening when someone asked if I had a date for the reception and I replied evenly, "Yes, I'm going with William.?


Through the laughter and the teasing it was difficult to be loyal to William. I left, saying, "Look, I like William. You girls are just jealous because you don't have a corner on the herb market." I was extremely goodnatured about the whole thing, but inside I felt all crumbly. I truly did like William. But a reception is a special time, almost a magical time, and a girl shouldn't have to go with a buddy; a girl should get to go with a sort of knight. A girl should get to go with someone like Jon.


It was rumored that Jon had invited a meek freshman girl to the reception. I flew straight to the bosom of a faithful friend-hard work. I cleaned my room to the last splinter; I read a new book; I bought some new music and practiced at it 30 minutes more each day. Finally the day of the reception arrived. I considered pretending to be ill, but the thought of William cleaning his glasses made me get my dress out and press it with determination.


What's that species?


My friends were very kind, if not a mite solicitous. Kay volunteered to give me a new hairstyle, and she did a fine job, all the time talking excitedly about the decorations she had seen through the dining room door when some careless boy opened it. She made me almost eager for the evening. And then the corsage came to the dormitory.


I opened the box with trembling hands. So many of the girls had received such lovely, dainty corsages, and I was afraid that William would forget. When I saw the corsage, I wished he had forgotten. It was a huge, single flower with a brownish color. Later he told me, proudly, the scientific name, but all I remember is that he said it belonged to the lily family. Never since have I seen a lily that looked related to that plant. I wore the thing bravely; I was beyond tears.


The evening itself was not so bad. The food was delicious, the program splendid. And William was, as usual, an interesting conversationalist. He told of a cave he had discovered near the school. Bushes and briars covered the small entrance, and he was sure it had not been entered for a long time. I became so engrossed in the account of his adventure that I forgot the rusty-looking suit he wore and the too-large necktie, patterned with green flying birds. When the program was over, he thanked me for the happy evening, and a curiously calm and grown-up feeling came over me. I had gained a new understanding of human values. No one believed me when I said I had had a lovely time. But I truly had.


My friend, too
That winter was a busy, pleasant one, but spring, when it tiptoed in, was never more beautiful. When I walked alone near the creek or in the meadow, there was a wish inside me that this spring could last forever, and the wish was almost an ache. One evening as I left the laundry, where I worked, someone walked up behind and said, "May I walk you to the dormitory?" It was Jon, and the beginning of a treasured friendship.


Near the end of the year, at the annual picnic, Jon said, "I want to tell you something. Before the boys' reception I hardly knew who you were-you were just a girl in my English class who smiled a lot. But you see, William is my friend too, and I thought there wasn't a girl on the campus who would overlook his exterior and see the really fine person underneath. Then, at the reception, when I saw how you talked to him-when I saw that corsage you wore [here Jon stopped to chuckle], I thought, Why, she must be the nicest girl in the whole school!"


I think Jon felt awkward telling me such a sweet, secret thing, for he quickly suggested a game of ping-pong. But the beauty of the moment hung about me.


There was a trickle of shame inside me that would not be ignored. The silly, sinful pride that had made me so unhappy when William invited me to the reception-what would Jon say if he knew of that? But the battle was over; it had ended, somehow, with that calm, grown-up feeling as I had said goodnight after the reception.
I knew then that if ever again I was invited to wear a lily-plant corsage, I could wear it with love instead of mere bravery.

Joan-Marie Cook writes from Texarkana, Texas. She shares, "I have always treasured words. I dreamed of being a real writer with a real studio, lots of windows, silence (except when I wanted Italian tenors for background), lovely tea to drink, flowers on my desk, and long stretches of time to dream and create. Sometimes I regret that my life path took me away from that dream and instead I became a counselor. Yet there are some connections, if you think about it, because I hear true-life stories every day."



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