John was the son of black migrant workers who had recently arrived in our small North Carolina town for a season of apple picking. These laborers were the poorest of the poor, earning barely enough to feed their families.
Standing at the head of our second-grade class that morning, John Evans was a hapless sight. He shifted from foot to foot as our teacher, Mrs. Parmele, penned his name in the roll book. We weren't sure what to make of the shoddy newcomer, but whispers of disapproval began drift
"What is that?" the boy behind me mumbled. "Somebody open a window," a girl said, giggling. Mrs. Parmele looked up at us from behind her reading glasses. The murmuring stopped, and she went back to her paper work.
"Class, this is John Evans," Mrs. Parmele announced, trying to sound enthusiastic. John looked around and smiled, hoping somebody would smile back. Nobody did. He kept on grinning anyway.
I held my breath, hoping Mrs. Parmele wouldn't notice the empty desk next to mine. She did and pointed him in that direction. He looked over at me as he slid into the seat, but I averted my eyes so he wouldn't think that I held promise as a new friend.
By the end of his first week, John had found firm footing at the bottom of our school's social ladder. "It's his own fault," I told my mother one evening a dinner. "He barely even knows how to count."
My mother had grown to know John quite well through my nightly commentary. She always listened patiently but rarely uttered more than a pensive "hmmm" or "I see."
Can i sit by you? John stood in front of me, lunch tray in hand and a grin on his face. I looked around to see who was watching. "Okay," I replied feebly.
As I watched him eat and listened to him ramble on, it dawned on me that maybe some of the ridicule heaped on John was unwarranted. He was actually pleasant to be around and was by far the most chipper boy I knew.
After lunch we joined forces to conquer the playground, moving from monkey bars to swing set to sandbox. As we lined up behind Mrs. Parmele for the march back to class, I made up my mind that John would remain friendless no longer.
Why do you think the kids treat John so badly?" I asked one night as Mother tucked me into bed.
"I don't know," she said sadly. "Maybe that's all they know."
"Mom, tomorrow is his birthday, and he's not going to get anything. No cake. No presents. Nothing. Nobody even cares."
Mother and I both knew that whenever a kid had a birthday, his mother would bring cupcakes and party favors for the entire class. Between my birthday and my sister's, my mom had made several trips herself over the years. But John's mother worked all day in the orchards. His special day would go unnoticed.
"Don't worry," Mom said as she kissed me good-night. "I'm sure everything will turn out fine." For the first time in my life, I thought she might be wrong.
At breakfast the next morning I announced that I wasn’t feeling well and wished to stay home.
"Does this have anything to do with John's birthday?" Mother asked. The bright-red flush on my checks was the only answer she needed. "How would you like it if your only friend didn't show up on your birthday?" she asked gently. I thought it over for a moment and then kissed her good-bye.
I wished john a happy birthday first thing in the morning, and his embarrassed smile showed me that he was glad I had remembered. Maybe it wouldn't be such a horrible day after all.
By midafternoon I had almost decided that birthdays weren't that big a deal. Then, as Mrs. Parmele was writing math equations on the blackboard, I heard a familiar sound coming from the hallway. A voice I knew was singing the birthday song.
Moments later Mother came through the door with a tray of cupcakes aglow with candles. Tucked under her arm was a smartly wrapped present with a red bow on top.
Mrs. Parmele's high-pitched voice joined in while the class stared at me for an explanation. Mother found John looking like a deer caught in car headlights. She put the cupcakes and gift on his desk and said, "Happy birthday, John."
My friend graciously shared his cupcakes with the class, patiently taking the tray from desk to desk. I caught Mother watching me. She smiled and winked as I bit into the moist chocolate frosting.
Looking back, I can scarcely remember the names of the children who shared that birthday. John Evans moved on shortly thereafter, and I never heard from him again. But whenever I hear that familiar song, I remember the day its notes rang most true: in the soft tones of my mother's voice, the glint in a boy's eyes and the taste of the sweetest cupcake.