The first of several short stories about Janet and her little brother Stevie, orphans who are looking for a secure place in this world.
From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1941 –
You Know How Boys Are
By Olive W. Burt
The beautifully dressed, kind-looking visitor paused for a moment beside Stevie’s desk, and tenderness flooded her face in answer to the pleading in the little boy’s eyes. The visitor turned to Teacher and spoke softly.
Janet’s heart stood still, absolutely still, for a moment. Then, as Janet had known she would, the visitor looked across the room at the little girl, said something more to Teacher, and walked slowly to the door. As she opened it, she looked back at Stevie’s bright head and pleading eyes.
Janet felt the sting of tears on her lids, and she wanted to lay her head on her geography book and cry. She didn’t have to look at her brother to know how his swaggering shoulders had drooped, how his soft lips were twisted in an effort to keep from quivering. He knew, as well as Janet did, what had happened. But the lady had looked so kind, so understanding. Janet had almost hoped the little scene would have a different ending this time.
Teacher came back into the room, and Janet noticed that even she looked sad. She spoke brightly enough, but as she passed Stevie her hand patted his shoulder ever so gently, and the lump in Janet’s throat grew bigger still. She was afraid she couldn’t get through the lesson, but she bent her eyes on the page and read with determination, “The Missouri River …”
Outside the schoolroom where the primary grade children of the Home sat studying, the sun was shining with the clear, bright splendor of April. Leaves were coming out on the trees, and birds were twittering here and there. Summer, Janet knew, was definitely on the way. It would be here before long – and there seemed no hope that she could get Stevie out of the Home before then.
All last summer, when the little boy had been so restless, she had put him off with promises that winter was the best time to get a new home … and that they probably would be lucky around about Christmas.
“Folks that don’t have any kids get thinking about it at Christmas,” she explained. “You wait and see. When they start getting ready for Christmas, they’ll want some kids in their house, and that’s when we’ll get a real home of our own. Just wait and see!”
And they had waited through the long, hot months, contenting themselves with the brief outings afforded by service clubs and the one exciting week at camp given by some wealthy benefactor to all the children in the Home.
Then, as Christmas had drawn near, Janet had begun making plans, definite plans for their change to a home of their own. She had taught her brother all the little extra things she could think of, things that would make the folks happier and more satisfied with their bargain. For if once they got into a home, Janet meant that they should stay there, if any effort on her part could assure this.
But one by one the visitors had come, had chosen this child or that, and had left Janet and Stevie. So in the end they had gone, with the few others left in the Home, to a big tree in the dining hall. Some school children had brought them gifts and had sung carols for them, and Stevie had cried himself to sleep, while Janet had had no heart to comfort him.
Janet didn’t blame those nice people. Many of them had wanted Stevie, big as he was. Of course, they all wanted babies if they could get them, the smaller the better. But when there were no more babies, they’d take children, the smallest first. But, even though Stevie was five and a big boy, they all wanted him. They would stop beside his desk, and he would raise his bright, curly head and smile, and they would turn to Teacher.
Then Teacher had to tell them of Janet. Mummy had made them promise not to send one away without the other. She hadn’t known what it would mean, she had just wanted to keep them together, always.
So the visitors would be told of Janet, and they would look across at the homely ten-year-old and turn away – what was the fun of making Christmas for a child like that? Janet knew exactly how they felt because once, coming along the hall, she had heard one of them trying to get Miss Thomas, the superintendent, to let her have Stevie only.
Janet had thought, after that, that she would tell Miss Thomas to let Stevie go – there was no use in keeping him from a good time just because no one wanted her. But she knew that the little boy would not enjoy one minute of the holiday or one bite of the dinner without his sister. The thought of letting him go away from her permanently never entered her head.
But now it was coming summer, and Stevie would be cooped up in the city again all through the long, hot days and the longer, hotter nights. She couldn’t keep him happy with promises this year. She couldn’t.
Janet blinked the tears from her eyes as Teacher rapped for attention. It was Current Events class, and each child must read some item he had clipped from the newspapers reserved for that purpose.
Janet rummaged through her desk until she found her clipping — an exciting item about the “Quints,” whom she adored. She let her eyes rest upon the familiar text, which she had practically memorized for the class, and thought about Stevie and herself.
It was funny about them. They looked a lot alike, both red-headed and freckled. Her hair was just a shade or two lighter than her brother’s, just a shade or two – but that made all the difference. And her freckles … Folks liked freckles on a little boy, but they hated them on a girl.
The tears came again, and to keep them back, Janet turned the clipping over and began to read the other side. Suddenly she was really reading it.
It seemed to be a letter, for it began:
“Dear Sunshine Lady.
“I am coming to you with my problem because you have helped so many, many people. My little girl, three years old, flies into the most terrible tantrums every time she cannot have her own way. Can you tell me what to do with her?”
There was some more about the little girl, and then, printed plain and clear, was an answer. It was a sensible answer, Janet thought, but one she wouldn’t have figured out for herself. It was given in a friendly tone, and Janet felt at once as if she knew this Sunshine Lady.
She had never seen anything like this in the newspaper before, and she wondered whether anyone could write and get an answer from the Sunshine Lady.
As soon as Library period came, Janet hurried to the newspaper rack and took down the Morning Star. She turned the pages eagerly, and at last came upon the “Sunshine Corner.” She read every word and found that anyone could write and ask any kind of question, and the Sunshine Lady would answer it. Her advice seemed so sensible, so friendly, that Janet was filled with wonder. If the Sunshine Lady could answer all of these questions, solve all these problems, perhaps she could help a worried little girl, too.
Slowly Janet’s plan took shape. Determined to waste no time, the little girl set to work to put it into effect.
She had some stationery that had been given to her at Christmas. She had never had to use any of it, but she knew what it was for. The next morning, she slyly brought to the study room some of the paper and an envelope, and at study time, using her clipping as a guide, she wrote her letter.
She started it exactly as the mother had done:
“Dear Sunshine Lady.
“I am coming to you with my problem because you have helped so many, many people.”
After she had written that much, the rest came easy, and she wrote as she had never written before, pouring out her troubles to the sympathetic helper who waited, somewhere, to answer her.
“You know how boys are,” she wrote. “They have to have a yard to play in and a dog, and they have to whistle and make a noise like an airplane. They don’t need so many clothes in the summer. They like to wear trunks most of the time, especially if they live near the seashore. Girls can get along in a Home all right, but with boys it’s different.”
Then she explained how she must find someone who would take her along with Stevie:
“I can work like everything, so I wouldn’t be much trouble. I can even make beds like they do in hospitals.”
The letter took four whole pages, written on both sides, but at last it was done and folded and stuffed into the envelope. Janet gave her lessons no thought as the end of the study period sounded. She was wondering where she could get a stamp to mail the letter.
Janet knew, though she didn’t know where she had learned it, that every letter must have a stamp on it. She was sure she could ask Teacher for one, but then she would have to explain about the letter, and Teacher might even want to read it. Janet didn’t want that. She didn’t want to have anyone know about it until she had seen an answer in the “Sunshine Corner.”
But then, as if in answer to her need, Teacher, at her desk, slit open an envelope and tossed it into the wastebasket as she read the letter it had contained. Janet’s eyes, alert as a squirrel’s, saw that the discarded envelope bore a stamp, and that the stamp seemed to be perfectly new.
Janet watched for a chance to get that envelope, and before the day was over she had found a moment when she could slip it from the wastebasket into her copy book. She felt a little bit guilty as she thought about it. But then, she thought, Teacher had thrown the envelope away. She was sure she would have said yes, if Janet had asked for it.
That night Janet carefully examined the envelope and found that, as she had thought, the stamp was almost new. There was a little black mark across it, but it wasn’t all blotted and blurred like so many old stamps. She felt sure it would carry her letter to the newspaper office.
Very, very carefully she prized the stamp from the envelope. Then, with a little dab of glue, she fastened it in the proper corner, addressed her letter to the Sunshine Lady of the Morning Star, and considered her next step.
She felt she was right in keeping her letter a secret. Not that Teacher or Miss Thomas would scold her, but they might think she didn’t like the Home; they might feel bad to think she wanted to leave them – and the whole staff adored Stevie and might not want to let them go.
Then, too, nothing might come of it. Maybe the Sunshine Lady couldn’t answer questions about orphans. But Janet thought she couldn’t bear it not to try, now.
She decided at last to slip the envelope in the pile of letters that always waited in the front hall for the postman to pick up. It was the only way she could think of to get the letter into the postman’s hands. If it were only summer, she thought, she could meet him in the yard. He often stopped to joke with the children when they were playing. but then, if it were summer, it would be too late.
Early the next morning, Janet slipped stealthily into the front hall and placed her letter among those found there. Then she slipped along the corridor to the classroom and faced the difficult task of waiting for the next day’s paper to come.
Janet was ashamed that teacher had to speak sharply to her several times that day. She just couldn’t keep her thoughts on her lessons. She kept wondering what the Sunshine Lady would think when she opened the letter. She must be a beautiful woman, Janet thought, with hair like the sunshine and eyes like summer skies. Thoughts like these made her forget geography dates and places; made her forget to turn the page in reading class; made her forget how to spell the simplest words.
As soon as study hour came, Janet rushed to the library and began to search through the columns of the Morning Star There was the Sunshine Lady’s corner, all right. But, though she had answered a number of queries, Janet’s was not among them. Janet went back to her seat thinking, “Of course, not today. She maybe wouldn’t get it till today. But tomorrow!”
But tomorrow there was still no answer in the Sunshine Lady’s column, nor was there the next day. Then, just after the study period was over, Connie, who answered the door and carried messages from the office to the teachers and helped dress the children, came into the room and spoke to Teacher, looking at Janet as she whispered.
Suddenly Janet was afraid. She didn’t know why. But the purloining of the envelope, the secretiveness of her actions, the worry of the past few days all lumped together in her mind to form a spectre of disaster.
Teacher spoke softly: “Janet, you are wanted in the office!”
The office! That was terrible! Only very, very naughty children were sent to the office – or those who were being called for by some relative or someone who wanted to see about adopting them. Janet knew it wasn’t either of the last two …
She followed Connie down the long hall, slowly, taking each step deliberately. Her throat was throbbing. Well, if Miss Thomas had seen the letter, if anything had happened, she would take the consequences. She had only been trying to find out what to do for the sake of Stevie. Boys were different …
Connie knocked on the door, and when Miss Thomas said, “Come in,” she opened it and pushed Janet into the room. Janet looked at Miss Thomas and thought, “She doesn’t look cross. She looks especially kind.”
“Janet,” said the superintendent, “here is a gentleman to see you. He is Mr. Knowlton of the post-office department.”
Janet turned toward the man, a quiet, elderly person in a gray suit.
He held her letter and its envelope in his hand.
“Come here, Janet,” he said kindly.
She stepped closer to him.
“Did you write this letter?” he asked, holding out the folded, bulky pages.
Janet nodded, wondering. “Yes, sir,” her lips formed the words mechanically.
“And did you put it in this envelope and put this stamp on it?” and he held out the envelope with the stamp neatly pasted in the corner.
Again Janet nodded. She knew she should answer as she had been taught, but her voice wouldn’t come at all. It was the stamp, then. Stealing from the wastebasket was as bad as stealing from a purse …
“Where did you get the stamp?” the man went on.
Janet made her eyes look straight into the gray ones.
“From Teacher’s wastebasket.”
Mr. Knowlton smiled suddenly, reassuringly.
“Don’t be afraid, Janet,” he said. “I am not going to hurt you. I am just trying to find out about the stamp. Did you know it had been used before?”
“Yes, sir. That is why I took it. I wouldn’t have taken a new stamp. Miss Thomas knows I wouldn’t. But Teacher threw this into the wastebasket, and I needed a stamp so bad … It was just as good as new, though,” she added, hoping he would understand.
The man put his arm about her and drew her closer.
“Didn’t you know that you must never use an old stamp on a letter?” he asked.
Janet shook her head. “It was just like new,” she repeated.
“But that isn’t the point,” the man said graciously. “Do you know why you put stamps on letters?”
Janet shook her head. Mr. Knowlton looked up at Miss Thomas, his eyes asking a question.
The superintendent said, “I don’t suppose the child does. She is only ten, and she has had, unfortunately, few reasons to write letters. I imagine that we have stamped the one or two thank-you notes she has sent to benefactors, and we have never thought to explain it to her.”
Mr. Knowlton nodded. “I see,” he said.
Then he turned to Janet again.
“It’s this way, Janet,” he explained, “Our government, Uncle Sam as we call it sometimes, delivers all the letters that go from place to place in the United States. The government carries them, protects them, delivers them. A long time ago, private men did this work and charged what they thought it was worth – sometimes two or three dollars for one letter. But the government found that it could do the job for just a few cents a letter, and this would save everyone money and make it easier and safer to write to each other.”
Janet was listening with her whole mind. The man’s voice was so low and quiet that she felt almost as if she were reading some pleasant book.
“Now in order to collect this money,” Mr. Knowlton went on, “Uncle Sam has each person who mails a letter buy a stamp. He gets the money, and this pays him for his work. But if a person uses the same stamp twice, you can see that Uncle Sam doesn’t get paid for delivering the second letter. He is cheated out of the few pennies he charges.”
Janet’s lip quivered.
“I know you didn’t mean to cheat Uncle Sam,” Mr. Knowlton added quickly. “It was just a mistake, and I’ll explain it to him – so everything will be all right. Now do you want to put a new stamp on the letter and have us deliver it for you?”
Janet shook her head sorrowfully.
“I haven’t a new stamp,” she said.
Miss Thomas opened a drawer and took out a stamp.
“Here is one, Janet,” she said. “I would gladly have given you a stamp had you asked me for one. Don’t you know that?”
“Yes, Miss Thomas,” answered Janet. Then, “But I …” She hated to say, “I didn’t want you to see the letter.” She hoped the superintendent wouldn’t ask to see it. And she didn’t. She handed the stamp to Janet. Mr. Knowlton removed the old stamp, and Janet put the new one in its place.
“Shall I drop the letter into the mail box for you?” he asked kindly.
Janet looked toward Miss Thomas. She had rather lost interest in the letter. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. But Miss Thomas nodded her head.
“If it is important, that would be the quickest way to send it,” she said.
So Janet nodded, dumbly, to Mr. Knowlton. She wondered whether Miss Thomas knew what was in the letter. Maybe she had read it before Janet came in. Well …
“You may go to your class, now, Janet. And you won’t forget what Mr. Knowlton has told you, will you?”
Janet shook her head. Her tongue seemed thick and dry in her mouth, so words wouldn’t come out. She walked slowly out of the room and down the hall.