Toby sat indian-style against the chain-link fence that encircled the playground, staring down at his untied shoelaces. They were gray and frayed with age, telling anyone who noticed that his family was too poor for Toby to get a new pair of shoes each year like the other kids in his class.
The pair of formerly white bargain brand sneakers had belonged to Toby’s sister Jean before him, and their brother Alex before Jean. Toby hated the shoes. They were uncomfortable because the padding on the insides had worn thin with age and because they were only slightly too small. They were ugly, not only because they were old and worn, but because they were ugly shoes to begin with. They were so ugly and uncomfortable that Toby had trouble walking in them. The other kids in Toby’s class made fun of the shoes. It didn’t matter that they knew he couldn’t afford nicer shoes; they made fun of Toby for wearing the shoes anyway.
Toby glanced up from his sneakers to see a brand new red and black pair of cross-trainers dart across the playground. Oh, how Toby wished he were wearing those shoes. The boy in the cross-trainers was Randy Stone. Randy could run faster and jump higher than any other kid in the fifth grade. Randy, in his shiny new shoes, made fun of Toby’s hand-me-down bargain sneakers as he ran past him on his way to the basketball court,
“Toby, Toby smelly feet, gets his shoes from off the street!”
Toby scowled at Randy and wished that he would trip over his cross-trainers. He didn’t.
As Toby glared at Randy’s cross-trainers running and jumping on the basketball court, he heard the sharp clickity-clack of Ms. Goodman’s slide-on penny loafers. Ms. Goodman was the nicest teacher in the fifth grade and Toby was in her class. Toby stared hard down at her shoes. They were relatively new with only a few scuffs, and were the exact same brown as her eyes. In the right shoe there was a not-so-shiny penny peeking face up through the slit in the top of the leather.
“Why do you have a penny in one shoe and not the other?” he asked, puzzled.
“I wear it because it’s my lucky penny.” Ms. Goodman smiled down at Toby, who was picking at the frays on his shoelaces. “And you can only have one lucky penny. So if I had a penny in each shoe then I would have one lucky penny and one unlucky penny, and that wouldn’t be very good, now would it?”
“What makes a lucky penny different from any other penny?” Toby was still curious about Ms. Goodman’s shoes.
“Well, Toby,” Ms. Goodman sat down next to him on the ground as she started to explain.
“For my eleventh birthday I had a beautiful party outside at the park. We played games, and ran races, we skipped rope, and there was even a clown who could make balloon animals! Well, when it was time for me to blow out the candles on my cake and make my wish, a great gust of wind came up and all the candles went out. I was so upset about losing my birthday wish that I started to cry. When my best friend Margaret saw my distress, she came and took my hand and led me to the big fountain in the center of the park. She reached deep in her pocket and found a penny. Margaret said that I could make my birthday wish on that penny and throw it into the fountain, and if it landed heads up then my wish would come true!” Ms. Goodman’s eyes grew wide at her remembrance. The children on the playground giggled and screamed as they went down the slide or skipped rope, or played basketball. She could tell that Toby wished the other kids would let him play with them.
“What did you wish for?” Toby asked, his eyes wide with anticipation.
“Nothing.” Ms. Goodman said, matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to waste that lucky wishing penny on anything silly, so I saved it. Now, I keep it in my loafers so I know where it is just in case I think of a really good wish.”
“I wish I had a lucky penny.” Toby said, glancing back at Randy on the basketball court.
“Really? What would you wish for?” The teacher asked, knowing what he would say.
“I would wish for a brand new red and black pair of cross-trainers, so the other kids wouldn’t make fun of me anymore.” Toby moved his gaze from Randy’s shoes to his own tattered sneakers.
Ms. Goodman’s eyes started to water as she tried to think of a reply, but before she could, the recess bell rang and all the children lined up to go back inside.
The next day, when Toby arrived at school, Ms. Goodman told all the students to move all the desks away from the center of the room and to take off their shoes and put them against the wall. Then all the children sat in a circle. Ms. Goodman brought a big bowl full of water to the center of the room.
“Okay class,” she began. “Today we’re going to play a game that will help us learn the new spelling words! I’m going to call you up one at a time and give you a word from our new vocabulary list. If you can spell your word correctly, then I will give you a penny to toss in this fountain and make a wish.” Ms. Goodman explained, pointing to the bowl of water. “Now, who wants to go first?”
Randy Stone thrust his hand in the air, “ooh, me, me, me!”
“Very well, Randy,” said Ms. Goodman. “Spell tomorrow.”
Randy thought for a moment. “T-O-M-M-O-R-O-W.” Randy grinned at what he was sure was his success.
“Aw, I’m sorry Randy, that was incorrect,” Ms. Goodman frowned. “The correct spelling is: T-O-M-O-R-R-O-W.”
Randy pouted as Ms. Goodman went around the room, quizzing the students and awarding pennies to those who spelled their words correctly. The students awarded pennies would squeeze their eyes tightly and toss their pennies into the bowl, no doubt wishing for some new toy or pet or superpower. Toby was the last student Ms. Goodman called on.
“Toby, can you please spell desire?”
Toby knew that a desire was something you hoped for, something you wished would happen. He glanced across the room at Randy’s cross-trainers.
Ms. Goodman smiled. “That was wonderful Toby!” She reached in her pocket and pulled out her hand, empty. “Hmmm. I seem to have run out of pennies! Let me see what I can find.” Ms. Goodman slowly stood up and walked across the room to her slide-on penny loafers and slipped out the penny from her right shoe. “Make a wish, Toby.” Ms. Goodman winked as she handed Toby her lucky penny.
Toby furrowed his brow in confusion; why would Ms. Goodman give up her birthday wishing penny so that he could wish for new sneakers? He couldn’t understand it at all. Toby closed his eyes tight, made his wish, and tossed the penny into the bowl.
It landed tails up. Ms. Goodman cringed and looked to see Toby’s reaction. Much to her surprise, he was smiling. Toby was grinning from ear to ear and he couldn’t stop. He smiled all day long.
When the bell rang at the end of the day all the students ran out the door, but Toby stayed behind.
“Can I help you with something, Toby?” Ms. Goodman asked curiously.
“I know you want to know why I’m so happy about my wish not coming true, don’t you?” Toby grinned.
“Well, I must say, I am a bit curious.”
“I knew it was gonna land heads down. It’s your lucky penny, not mine,” Toby explained. “It wouldn’t be right for me to take your birthday wish; so I wished for exactly the opposite of what I wanted. I figure, since my wish won’t come true then the penny is still good for you to make your wish.” Toby smiled up at his teacher. “But thank you for offering it to me anyway. That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
As Toby was walking home from school that day, he tripped over a curb and ripped the entire sole off his right sneaker. He stifled tears as he meandered through the trailer park to his home. His parents were arguing about something when he opened the door.
“Just because you got a raise doesn’t mean we should go and spend it all!” his mother snapped at his father.
“I just thought we could use a new TV to keep the kids busy after school,” Toby’s father threw up his arms in frustration. Toby glanced to the back of the room at the brand new 13-inch television screen where a new cross-trainers commercial flashed silently.
“I wrecked my shoes on the way home,” Toby mumbled as he wiggled his toes through the hole in the bottom of his right sneaker.
“See,” Toby’s mother snapped, “you’re wasting your money on TVs when your youngest son doesn’t even have a decent pair of shoes to his name. Poor thing could catch his death of cold!”
Toby’s father grumbled as he turned off the television and snatched the plug from the wall. He fought against the foam packing to get the TV back in the box. Once he got the box sealed he picked it up and headed out the door. He dropped the TV into the bed of his dirty gray pick-up. He climbed into the driver’s side and, as he started the engine, yelled inside to his son, “Toby, you comin’ or what boy? I cain’t buy yer shoes without ya!”
Toby grinned up at his mother and ran out the door, hopping in the truck just as it started to roll away.