I stared at my paper, the problems blurring before my eyes. I blinked, but the confusing numbers and carried digits made my head spin. I glanced up at the timer and gripped my pencil so hard it hurt. I only had fifteen seconds left. I scribbled a couple answers, pausing on the tenth problem out of twenty. I scribbled and erased and scribbled and erased so many times I tore a hole in the paper. The timer dinged, and I reluctantly passed the torn paper forward.
“I will grade these speed drills this afternoon,” Mrs. Tallow said to me and my fellow prisoners—I mean, classmates. She piled the tests together, but my torn copy split apart. Half of it fluttered to the floor. I sank lower in my seat as if doing so would make me invisible. Three boys in the back of the room sniggered when they saw my red face and shaking hands. Mrs. Tallow stooped to retrieve the paper, and a paper wad hit me in the back of my dusty blonde head. If I sank any lower in my chair, I’d be on the floor.
“That concludes our math lesson for today,” Mrs. Tallow said once she paperclipped my ripped paper and set it on top of the pile. “I want you all to be working on your multiplication facts tonight. The test tomorrow isn’t going to be easy.”
A test? My heart sank. I’d forgotten all about that.
“Charlie, is anything wrong?”
I straightened and swallowed hard as everyone turned to look at me. Mrs. Tallow was looking straight at me with a raised eyebrow.
“No, ma’am,” I said. My voice betrayed me by cracking, its squeaky tone shattering whatever was left of my dignity. The class giggled, and I grew red again. Mrs. Tallow scolded my peers, and the laughter died down. She looked at the clock and motioned toward the door.
“Recess,” she said. “Line up.”
I hurried in line, and we all headed to the gym. I sat on the floor against the wall to watch the older kids play basketball. It wasn’t long before Garret found me.
He slid to the ground next to me. We watched the sixth-grade guys pass the basketball around for a while until I broke the silence.
“I’m going to fail that math test tomorrow,” I said.
“Don’t talk like that. It can’t be that bad.”
“I can’t even finish the speed drills. You finish in thirty seconds. I take hours.”
“You do not. Besides, I have a little help.”
“What do you mean?”
“I taped the multiplication tables to the bottom of my shoe.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am! Whenever I need a little help, I look at the bottom of my shoe. I haven’t been caught yet.”
“But you sit in the back. There’s no way I could get away with something like that. I’m almost in the front.”
“You wouldn’t need to put it on your shoe. Your arm would be good enough.”
“But isn’t that cheating?”
“Eh, only a little. I only use it when I need to.”
“Still, I don’t know, Garret.”
Garret was about to respond when the whistle blew. We stood up and hurried to get back in line. I stood behind Julie and stared at my shoes as I thought about what Garret had told me.
The rest of the day passed so slowly I thought I would die from exhaustion. Or humiliation. I fell over Julie’s backpack, flung a pencil across the room during English, and managed to knock Titus’s sandwich into the trashcan at lunch. By the end of the day, I was ready to move into a cave and live off of crickets for the rest of my life. I stuffed my homework into my backpack and waited for the classroom to clear out before heading toward the door.
“Charlie,” Mrs. Tallow called. I paused as my teacher put her hand on my shoulder.
“I looked over your speed drill, and I noticed you are still struggling with the basic multiplication problems. Have you been practicing at home?”
“I try to,” I answered reluctantly, looking at the floor. “My parents are busy with Lilly most of the time.”
“Having a baby in the family can be a hard transition,” Mrs. Tallow said. Her tone was warm and understanding. “I know it was hard for me when I was about your age.”
“What did you do?”
“I tried working on my own. I never wanted to bother my parents because I thought that they were too busy for me.”
“I failed a math test.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, Charlie, but I haven’t always enjoyed math.”
“I don’t think I ever will.”
“The problems are just puzzles, Charlie. Once you learn the method, the problems get easier to do. And it’s perfectly normal to ask your parents to help. They want you to succeed just as much as I do.”
I nodded, not knowing how else to respond.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Can I walk you to the carline?”
“My mom had a last-minute meeting,” I explained quickly. “She said I could walk home through the park.”
“But the snow—”
“I have my tall boots,” I reassured her . “Bye, Mrs. Tallow. See you later.”
I hurried out of the classroom before she could say anything else. The door clicked shut behind me, and I walked briskly to the glass doors at the end of the hall while zipping up my winter coat. As I opened the door, I was met by a breeze of frigid Virginia air . I smiled and crunched my boots into the first step of soft snow. It was still less than a foot deep, and I only had a little trouble walking through the wasteland that was once a soccer field. I lived in the neighborhood behind the school, so I didn’t have too far to go. But the chilly wind bit at my exposed ears, and I thought about my mom’s constant nagging for me to bring a hat to school. I moved a little faster, eager to get out of the cold. As I was walking by the left soccer goal, I noticed a tall white figure standing next to it. It appeared to be a snowman.
I left my path and ventured toward it. It was a little strange, standing at about five feet tall with a blue scarf around the second and third tier. His eyes were pieces of coal, and he had a normal carrot nose, but there was a candy cane in his mouth instead of a pipe. He also held a broom, but the staff looked funny. It was notched and had a leaf near where the snowman was holding it. He also had snowy arms like Frosty the Snowman instead of sticks.
“Someone must have built him at recess,” I said out loud, turning away from the snowman. I resumed my trek home, but a boisterous voice shouted at me.
“Well, how do you like that? You just stare and move on. What if I need a hot chocolate or something?”
I whipped around, but there was no one behind me. Well, no one except for the snowman. I blinked. I could have sworn that the snowman shifted a little toward me.
“Hold on, pal. I need to stretch for a second,” the voice spoke again. I jumped back as the snowman moved his arms back and forth. He lifted the odd broom and threw back the scarf as he twisted around a couple times. I stood frozen in shock . “There, that’s better. I thought I was going to topple over after those first graders kicked me. Fortunately, there’s more ice to me than snow,” he said, patting his second tier which, I guess, was his stomach. “You look a little cold, Charlie.”
“You know my name?”
“Of course I do! I didn’t fly all the way here from the North Pole without knowing my assignment’s name. That would be ridiculous.”
“The North Pole?”
“Where else would snowmen live? It gets a little dangerous when the reindeer are practicing their flight patterns, but you get used to it.”
I stared at the black coal eyes of the snowman, the wet snow in my boots completely forgotten.
“What do you mean, assignment? Who are you?”
“The name’s Coel. My parents were going to name me Coal, but they figured that would be mean. And Frosty was already taken.”
“Like the famous Frosty?”
“He’s my cousin.” Coel sniffed, his snowy hand sliding down on his broom a little. “He’s a little prideful about his title, but I did win at freeze tag.” Coel leaned down a little with a sort of twinkle in his eye. “I stole his hat.”
“But what are you doing here? It’s Christmas next week.”
“That is classified, sort of.”
“How can something be ‘sort of’ classified?”
“You ask too many questions.” Coel dismissed me with a wave of his snowy hand. “Come on.”
His bottom tier started rolling while the rest of him remained upright, like a Star Wars droid. Abandoning all logical thoughts, I ran after him.
“So, do you want a hot chocolate?” I asked.
“I would melt,” Coel said stiffly.
“But you said—”
“I was being facetious, Charlie. When a snowman asks for hot chocolate, make it and drink it yourself.”
I opened my mouth but wasn’t sure how to respond. The snowman and I walked along for a couple more minutes before stopping in the snowy driveway of 3891 Barkley Avenue. I stared at the house, hesitant to go in.
“What are you waiting for?” Coel asked me.
“I don’t know if I should go in,” I said.
“Why not? Your parents will be worried if you don’t.”
“They don’t notice me anymore. Not with Lilly always crying.”
“Sometimes you have to make some noise to be heard.”
“But it’s easier to hide.”
“Yeah. Besides, I can take care of myself.”
“You shouldn’t have to, pal,” Coel said, putting a hand on my shoulder. The snowman’s grip was strong but comforting even though it was cold.
I stood there a little longer before taking a deep breath. I looked at Coel, who smiled down at me.
“Will you stay here until I get back?”
“I’ll be here when you need me, pal.”
I smiled at him and then trudged up the driveway to the front door. It was unlocked, so I entered quietly. I kicked off my snow-covered boots and left them on the mat by the door. I dumped my backpack and coat next to the bench in the entryway and headed to the kitchen. Mom was there making some kind of casserole, and Lilly slept in her bassinet nearby.
“Hey, honey,” Mom said when she saw me. “How was school?”
“It was okay,” I replied, sitting on a bar stool. “What’s for dinner?”
“Oh, this isn’t for us. This casserole is for Ms. Whitely from across the street. She’s not feeling well, and I thought I’d help her out.”
“Why? She’s always so grumpy.”
“Charlie, she’s our neighbor, and we need to be kind to her. Besides, maybe this casserole can be a peace offering.
“She sprayed your roses with weed killer.”
Mom was about to reply when Lilly started to wake up. I sighed. Our mother-son conversation was over. She hurried to the side of the bassinet, and I hopped off the bar stool and grabbed my backpack before retreating into my room on the other end of the small house. I plopped down at my desk and pulled out my books. I piled them on the desk and stared at the math book on top. As I started to open it, my window slid open. Coel poked his head inside before I had the chance to yell.
“Coel! How’d you do that?”
“I just opened the window.”
“But it was locked—from the inside.”
“I know. Nothing a little magic couldn’t fix.”
“Can that magic suddenly help me understand math? Because I need all the help I can get. I have a test tomorrow.”
“A test the day before Christmas break? That’s rough, pal. Maybe your mom could help.”
“She’s too busy with Lilly. Could you help me study?”
“What? I’m just a snowman! I can’t do math.”
“But you're a magic snowman. Can’t you do something?” I asked, shivering a little. Coel leaned so far into my room I thought his top half would fall off and into my laundry.
“Well, I might be able to help,” Coel said after a moment of deep thought. The snowman opened the window further, and I grabbed my thick blanket from my bed. After wrapping it securely around me, I opened my math book and held it so Coel and I could see. We spent the next hour and a half trying to study, but I'm afraid to say that we didn’t accomplish much. There was a dog that was barking at Coel for ten minutes, and Lilly started crying. Her ear-splitting sobs carried through the door, and I would have jumped out the window to join Coel in the snow if I weren’t already so cold.
Then Dad came to get me for dinner. Coel ducked below the window, and I closed it before going to the table. I stared out the dining room window for most of dinner, watching Coel play with the neighbor’s dog that seemed more intent on using the snowman’s broom as a chew toy than fetching the tennis ball that kept getting buried in the snowbanks.
“How was school today, champ?” Dad asked me. “Anything exciting planned for your last day tomorrow?”
“Not really,” I answered. I forked another green bean into my mouth to avoid answering further. Lilly banged a spoon on the tray of her highchair, flinging her bowl of mashed peas to the floor. The green mush splattered all over the hardwood floors. Lilly laughed and banged her spoon harder. Mom and Dad both jumped up to clean, and I sank back in my chair. They fussed over Lilly for the next ten minutes, and I stayed quiet. After finishing my mashed potatoes, I got up from the table and took my dishes to the kitchen. Mom and Dad were still in the dining room with Lilly, so I went to my room and shut the door. I collapsed into my desk chair and shivered as frigid air rushed in when Coel opened my window.
“I don’t want to study anymore, Coel. I won’t understand any of it anyway. Maybe I should just do what Garret said.”
“You mean cheat?”
I stiffened and glanced away.
“It’s not cheating,” I said quickly. I looked back at the window when I heard a soft crackling sound. Deep rifts opened across Coel’s face as the tightly packed snow split apart. The snowman sighed, and the strong smell of peppermint filled my senses. His blue scarf tinted slightly yellow as it drooped around the snowman’s neck. It flipped for a moment, and intricate stitching caught my eye, but Coel fixed the scarf before I had a chance to get a better look.
“Lying breaks trust, Charlie,” Coel sighed. The snowman’s labored breathing slowed as the rifts closed and ice packed into the cracks. I stared, not knowing what to say. “I can’t make this choice for you, Charlie. I’ve done all I can for now.”
Coel started to close the window, but I jumped up and held it open.
“Will you walk me to school in the morning?” I asked.
“You don’t think your parents will?”
“They’re busy. Will you, Coel?”
“Sure, pal. I’ll be in the front yard when you need me.”
I helped close the window, but I missed having a friend to talk to. I went to the bathroom to shower and changed into my warmest pajamas. Keeping the warm light of my lamp on, I got in bed and opened a book about sharks. Around nine o’clock, Dad stopped by my room.
“Hi, Charlie. I’m sorry about earlier. Your sister just wouldn’t go to sleep, and I had several papers to grade before tomorrow.”
“It’s okay, Dad. I understand,” I said, setting my book aside. “I get it. Really, I do.”
“Good.” Dad nodded, and I could tell that he didn’t really know what else to say. “Well, sleep well. I’ll see you before I go to work.”
He leaned over and kissed my forehead. He ruffled my blonde hair before walking out and clicking the door shut behind him. I pulled my covers up and stared at the door. I didn’t really know why. Maybe I wanted Dad to come back and ask how my day went. Maybe I wanted my mom to peek in and tell me goodnight. Maybe I was waiting for Coel to come in and fix my math troubles. But ten minutes of waiting and staring at my posters didn’t help anything. My gaze wandered around my room, finally resting on my open math book that still lay on my desk. I threw off my covers and plopped down at my desk, the equations and hand-written notes just confusing my tired mind further. If I could just remember these rules and basic tables, then I would be fine. I knew I would. I pulled a sheet of paper out of my binder and started copying the tables and rules. It took me about twenty minutes, and I stared at the scribbled work as my heart pounded in my chest. Putting the sheet of facts in the front cover, I closed the book and then got back in bed. Even after I turned out the light, I still felt nervous and too anxious to sleep.
“Maybe I won’t need it. I can figure out the equations on my own. Well, I’ll try anyway. But it’ll help if I get stuck. It’s not really cheating,” I told myself even though I knew it was.
The morning came far too soon for my liking. I hadn’t slept nearly enough, and the task of the daunting math test hung over me like a cloud. I got ready for school and ate a quick breakfast before heading outside on my own. Mom looked tired and was feeding Lilly, and Dad had already left for work. He’d forgotten to stop in and see me, but I knew he would. He always did .
Coel was waiting for me at the end of the driveway and waved, giving me the biggest smile a snowman could give. I barely noticed that the yellowish tint of his blue scarf had grown a shade darker. I ran to him, my troubles momentarily forgotten as I wrapped my arms around the man of snow. I was a little cold, but the comfort of having a friend by my side warmed me more than a cup of hot chocolate ever could. We talked pleasantly as we made our way to school, and I almost didn’t want the walk to end. I wished I could skip school and spend the day with Coel instead. When I suggested it, the snowman shook his head.
“Avoiding your challenges isn’t how you overcome them,” Coel told me. My shoulders drooped in disappointment. Coel chuckled and put a snowy hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him, finding comfort in his eyes of coal. We reached the school, and I stopped Coel with a gentle tug of his arm.
“You’ll wait here for me, right?”
Coel bent over so he could look me straight in the eyes.
“I promise I’ll be here,” he said. I straightened, feeling a little more confident. I headed up to the glass doors but glanced behind to Coel, who gave me an encouraging smile. I opened the doors and headed into the warm hallway.
The morning passed slowly, and I kept the sheet of math facts in my desk. I kept looking at it between activities, and the burning temptation nagged me. I barely said a word to anyone, even Garret. Finally, math arrived. I pushed the sheet of paper further into my desk as Mrs. Tallow passed out the test. Swallowing hard, I gripped my pencil and carefully wrote my full name at the top. The first couple questions were easy, but they progressively grew harder as I worked through the test. My sheet of math facts and rules remained in my desk, and I slowly reached in, fingering the bottom corner. I glanced up at Mrs. Tallow, finding her bent over a stack of papers at her desk. Slowly. Carefully. I pulled the sheet noiselessly from my desk. I did my best to conceal it, running my eyes over the scribbled words and tables.
My face grew hot and sweaty as my heart thundered in my chest. The words grew blurry as I tried to ignore the stab of guilt penetrating my heart. I looked back up at Mrs. Tallow and quickly averted my gaze when I found her looking at me. I swallowed hard again, trying to dislodge the lump I felt rise in my throat. I put my hands back on my desk and continued my test. But the questions only seemed more confusing. I gripped my pencil with a sweaty hand and started to write again. The six I wrote was shaky, so I set down my pencil to retrieve an eraser. I rubbed the pink lump slowly so I wouldn’t rip the test. I wasn’t about to repeat yesterday’s mistake.
I finished the rest of the test, bothered by the sheet of paper that protruded from my desk. I did my best to shove it back in, but the noise of crumpling paper stopped me. I retracted my hand from the desk and exhaled slowly as I glanced around the room. It didn’t seem like anyone noticed. I finished the last few problems just as Mrs. Tallow stood up.
“Please pass your tests in,” she said. I put down my pencil and handed my test to Hayden, who sat in front of me. I watched as the papers were steadily stacked and set in a pile in front of Mrs. Tallow. “Well done, everyone,” she said, looking across the classroom. Her eyes rested on me, but I couldn’t look back. I stared down at my desk, trying my best to avoid looking guilty. “Line up for recess,” she directed. Everyone got up, but I lagged behind. Just as I was about to get in line, Mrs. Tallow put her hand on my shoulder.
“Stay back a moment, Charlie,” she whispered to me. She sent the rest of the class out into the hall, where the fourth and sixth graders were already gathered. The mass of children headed to the gym as the door clicked shut, leaving me alone with Mrs. Tallow. I avoided her eyes, guilt and panic surging through me. “Charlie, would you please get that paper from your desk?”
I cleared my throat and ventured a look at her face.
“What paper?” I asked. My voice cracked, and her mouth turned down in disappointment.
“You know which one,” came her reply. I turned from her and walked back to my desk. The twelve steps were hard, like walking through cold snow without shoes on. I crouched, reaching into the desk to retrieve the crumpled paper. I didn’t look at it. I couldn’t. I held it out to her, stopping just out of reach. She took the paper from me and scanned it. I stared at the floor, the weight of the world pressing on my shoulders. I wanted to hide in a dark hole and never come out.
“Charlie, what is this?” she asked me. Her tone was stern, but she didn’t shout. I almost wished she did. Her quiet disappointment was crushing.
“It’s—my multiplication tables,” I answered. My voice was barely a squeak.
“And were you using this for the test?”
I swallowed, unable to answer.
“Yes, ma’am,” I forced out, hot tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I wrapped my arms around myself, sniffing as I continued to stare at the floor. I trembled as silent tears streamed down my face. I rubbed my nose with the back of my hand but only smeared a mess across my cheek. Mrs. Tallow handed me a tissue, resting her hand on my shoulder as I blew my nose.
“Charlie, why didn’t you come to me? You know that cheating isn’t right.”
I wanted to answer, but my sobs only grew more intense. I tried to suppress them, but that only made the cloudy pain in my head intensify . Reading that I was incoherent for any sort of discussion, Mrs. Tallow put her hand on my back and sat me down in the back of the room in one of the reading nook bean bags. She then left the room. I sniffed, wiping the hot tears from my face. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think. The room was suddenly suffocating, and I had to get out. I jumped up and bolted out of the room. I ran down the hall and out the glass doors. I heard someone yell my name, but I didn’t stop. I needed a friend, and I knew where to find him. But I skidded to a halt where I had left Coel earlier that morning. The snowman was gone.
There was a pile of snow where he’d last been standing, and I knelt next to it. His candy cane was broken in half and lying next to the snow mound. The bamboo broom stick lay next to it, and a scarf was heaped on top. Its beautiful blue hue was gone, replaced by a sickly and depressing yellow. I collapsed next to the snow mound, fresh tears streaming down my face and into the snow. I grabbed the scarf, clutching it to my chest as a new wave of grief and guilt hit me.
I threw the scarf aside and tried mounding the snow back up into a circular shape. But with a lack of gloves I found rebuilding the snowman impossible. Fresh tears streamed down my cheeks as I packed and prodded, rolled and crushed, but the snow wouldn’t mold. I eventually gave up, wiping my running nose on my sleeve. Then Mrs. Tallow found me. She brought me back inside, but not before I grabbed the yellow scarf again.
What transpired next is more of a blur to me now. I know I had a conversation with the principal, and I failed the math test. Mrs. Tallow called my mom, and she came with Lilly. I missed the rest of the school day and went home under strict grounding and high disappointment. I’ve blocked most of the hard day from my memory, but I do remember this. Only when I made it back to the comfort of my room and had a chance to look more closely at the scarf did I see words stitched in the fabric.
Trust is like a snowman: easy to break and hard to build once broken.
Even though I am an old man, I still have that scarf. It has since turned back to the wonderful shade of blue, but it took a long time to do so. I wear it every day in the winter months and hang it on my bedpost every night. I haven’t seen my magical friend for many years, but his scarf always reminds me of all I learned that difficult day. Trust is fragile, like a snowman. But given time—and a lot of patience— both can be rebuilt.