Ditta Sylvester, Contributor
Olive Barnes was an unhappy child who needed to be first if only to compensate for the loving attention she was denied at home. She was a bright girl, very much aware of her academic prowess and petrified of coming below third place.
The first, second, and third places in our class were usually taken by Olive and two other girls - Janet Clarke and Susan Davis - at the end of each term. Thus they came to be known as the "Top Three".
Olive never forgot to bring an apple or an orange for our teacher at least once every week. Not to be outdone, Janet and Susan would also bring her a fruit, even if it had to be stolen from somebody else's tree. Dahlia Adams, my best friend, was a constant threat to the Top Three, repeatedly outdoing them all in mathematics.
As the end of the Easter Term approached, the Top Three, who were usually on time for school, found it necessary to get there long before the bell rang. Miss Jones had recently introduced the concept of giving "Early Bird" points which would be added to academic points. But arriving at school so early caused many to leave household chores undone, resulting in serious trouble at home.
It was Olive's duty to empty and wash the chamber pot before she left for school every morning. In order to be as early as Janet and Susan, Olive began to forget that particular duty. Her mother flogged her for neglecting the chimmy, but in her zeal to acquire points, Olive continued to forget it. Mrs Burns then told her that the next morning she forgot to do her duty, she (Olive's mother) would take the chimmy with its contents up the hill to school and disgrace her before Miss Jones and the children. Olive never forgot the chamber pot again.
The down side to that was that she ended up getting very few "Early Bird" points that term. Her overall academic performance dropped and she came 10th, below even me. The Top Three now became the Top Two as Janet and Susan, who took first and second places, teased and sniggered at their former friend. Olive was humiliated, but determined to regain her former high standing in the class.
As the Summer Term began, Olive - who now had almost no friends at all - spent most of her free time reading and re-reading what had been taught in science classes and making sure she knew her tables. Olive found English and the other subjects easy but math and science frequently puzzled her. She seldom asked for help and guarded the knowledge she acquired like a unique treasure which the dunce and badminded in our class were anxious to relieve her of.
One Wednesday afternoon, Olive did 10 math problems and got them all right. Glowing proudly, she walked back to her seat with her book which she hid deep in the bottom of her bag. She then asked to be excused to go to the bathroom. Olive was hardly out of the class before Chris Walters, who sat behind her, reached into the bag and took out the book. Chris' head was very tough, probably because his focus was mainly on food. Busily, he copied the answers from Olive's book. He had just about two left to do when Olive returned and caught him. She screamed at the top of her voice:
"CHRIS!!!... Put down my book, Craven Chris!"
Before we knew what was happening, Olive was on top of Chris, yelling and crying and beating him with her fists.
Our teacher reprimanded Chris, counselled Olive and gave her some time out. Then she placed her to sit beside Dahlia and me. Dahlia, Olive and I got on great together. The top two watched us from a distance regretting (we felt sure) that they had treated her the way they had. We were now The Top Three!
The whole school was excited as the school year approached its end. Miss Jones gave one test a day, starting with English. Dahlia and I were surprised to see our good friend Olive pulling away from us, sitting on the very edge of the bench and covering her paper to ensure we couldn't see her answers. We got the math paper last. It wasn't an easy one and Olive surprised us again by sitting up close to Dahlia. I whispered to my friend that she should ignore Olive. This could be her opportunity to come first in the class, I told her since Janet and Susan were clearly having a hard time with the paper as well. My friend nodded in agreement and stayed firm in her resolve. That is, until she heard Olive sobbing softly. Heedless of my advice, Dahlia slid closer to her and covertly helped her.
We waited breathlessly for the results of the test to be announced. We were playing in the schoolyard, when Chris ran past yelling that Miss Jones had just posted the results of the test. We immediately raced into the classroom, hearts beating. I can still remember her whoops of joy as our classmate read her name - Olive Lydia Burns - at the very top of the list. Dahlia was also happy that she had placed second. Janet and Susan had to be content with the third and fourth places.
Dahlia and I were walking home that evening, when she mentioned how much heavier her bag felt. We moved over to the side of the road and opened the bag. And there - way below the old exercise books, sweetie and biscuit wrappers, a broken pencil sharpener and a soiled handkerchief - was the still unopened gift which Olive had received for taking first place that year.
Obviously, she had learnt from Dahlia's unselfishness and had chosen to give the prize to the person she knew deserved it most.
Ditta Sylvester is the author of Puss Food and other Jamaican Stories.