“The Wrong Notes,” New Era, Feb. 2000, 41
I wrote in my journal about band practice that Valentine’s Day. My friend Jill and I had to stay after school a half hour with the rest of the brass section because we couldn’t get the notes right to “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
We tried to phone home for rides, but only got answering machines. So we both had to walk the three miles. We hardly said anything the whole way. Over the last couple of blocks, it started to rain. We couldn’t run very fast because I had my trumpet case and Jill had her French horn case. When we got to Jill’s, she discovered she didn’t have her key, so we ran across the street to my house. We sat in my bedroom with our wet hair and clothes and griped about the day.
We each hoped someone would invite us to the Sweetheart Dance that night. Never mind that neither of us had a boyfriend; we thought someone secretly fascinated with us might make himself known and appear at the last moment. My friend Tara had been asked the week before, and we’d watched a bunch of girls get little bouquets of flowers all day at school. It was getting later, and no one called. We checked the messages on my family’s answering machine and then called Jill’s mother, who had finally gotten home, to ask if there was a message for Jill. The only messages were the two of us begging for someone to give us a ride home from school.
So we knew the dance was out. We were two mediocre band students with soggy hair and no romantic prospects.
Jill looked through my CDs and we played a couple of songs, but they were all about love and romance. I considered trying to see how many ways I could destroy a CD, but CDs are expensive and I only had four anyway.
So it’s no wonder we did what we did, even though there is no excuse for it.
It started when we wandered into the kitchen for a snack. Mom said, “Hi, girls. Sorry I wasn’t home or I’d have come to get you. How was school?”
I just threw her my don’t-ask look.
Mom gave us some leftover heart cookies she had made for Brandon’s kindergarten class. That’s when we saw Brandon’s blank animal valentines he hadn’t used because he wanted the Spiderman ones instead. Even now I don’t know why we took the valentines.
In my room we were feeling unloved and grouchy. We started writing on the valentines. One of them had a hippo on it. It said, “I like you a ton.” I wrote on the back “Weight Watchers, 7:30 P.M. on Tuesday” and signed it illegibly, giggling. Jill started laughing, too. She found one with a skunk on it that said, “Don’t be a stinker—be my Valentine.” On the back of it, she wrote, “Try deodorant and a fly swatter.”
Now we were really rolling. We wrote something mean on the back of every single valentine. We managed to twist every little animal into a negative label.
I’m sorry to say it was my idea to actually deliver the valentines. It was too bad the rain had let up, or it might have squelched the idea. We waited until after dinner and told my mom we would be back soon. Then we ran a few blocks away from our houses. We put each valentine on a porch, rang the doorbell, and ran. We hid behind a car or a tree, then laughed when someone came to the door and looked around with a puzzled expression, finally noticing the white envelope on the doormat. Then they would pick it up and take it into the house. I’m only glad we got tired after leaving eight of them.
At one house, a bunch of little kids answered the door and jumped up and down, hollering, when they found the valentine. We quit after an elderly woman had trouble stooping to pick up her delivery.
Jill went home and so did I, feeling more hollow as the night progressed. I’d started to wonder if the rude valentines had hurt anyone’s feelings. I hoped all the recipients had thrown them in the trash and gone back to watching TV or whatever it was they’d been doing. I thought about how I would have felt to get one of our valentines. I’d have been crushed.
The crummy day got crummier.
In the weeks that followed, Jill and I talked about it.
“Lauren, you know what? I wish we hadn’t done that.”
“I know,” I told her. “I bet that one lady had arthritis or something.”
“Yeah, and maybe her children have all moved away and no one writes to her or calls her,” Jill said.
“And then we go and leave a rude valentine on her porch. Bet that just made her day,” I added glumly.
We sat in silence for a while.
“How can we fix it?” Jill asked.
“I’ve thought about that a lot. But I don’t know. Do you remember whose houses we went to?”
Jill shook her head. “It was so random. We were just going wherever. I don’t know who those people were.”
“We wouldn’t have done it if we had known them.”
“But somebody knows them. They’re somebody’s kids or somebody’s grandmother.”
“Well, keep thinking. Maybe there’s a way to fix this.” But I knew we couldn’t undo the damage we’d done.
I prayed a lot more, all through March and then April. Jill and I both felt terrible. I didn’t write much in my journal. I just didn’t feel like it. My mom always told me I had a hyperactive conscience. But I thought it was better to have a hyperactive conscience than no conscience at all.
I went over and over what we’d done, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The next time we had to stay after school to get a song right, we walked home together. We didn’t even call for a ride because we didn’t feel we deserved one.
On a boring Tuesday in May, I was drifting off in Mr. Bates’s history class when a folded sheet of looseleaf paper slid onto my desk. I popped awake.
I opened it.
It read: “Hey, cute stuff! Tried to call your house but got no answer last night. Do you want to go with me for dinner and a movie on Friday? Let me know after class.” It was signed “Nate Campbell.”
Nate Campbell? Talk about cute stuff!
I folded the note up and turned around to give Nate my most dazzling smile when I saw the name on the front of the note: “Shannon.” It might as well have said in red neon letters, “NOT YOU.” I turned down the wattage on my smile and passed the note to Shannon, two seats up.
Of course the note wasn’t for me. Shannon probably didn’t write mean things on valentines and deliver them to the elderly. A wave of embarrassment swept over me, and I kept fully alert for the rest of the day. Who knew what else I would do to humiliate myself before the day was out?
School ended for the summer, and we still hadn’t figured out how to repair the damage we might have caused by our rude valentines.
The summer passed, and I kept practicing my trumpet. We marched in the Fourth of July parade. I dropped my trumpet once, and some boys laughed and pointed at me. I had to run to catch up to the rest of the band. My face was already hot because of the temperature; afterward, it felt even hotter. My family was nice and told me how well I’d done, avoiding any mention of my klutziness.
The orthodontist put braces on me in July, and I decided I was being humbled by degrees.
I played with Brandon during the summer, and we built a zoo in the backyard with his stuffed animals in cages made out of overturned laundry baskets. We made tickets, and I popped popcorn for everyone who visited the zoo. Word got out in the neighborhood, and some of Brandon’s friends came three times.
I helped Jessica, my seven-year-old sister, set up a lemonade stand, and I counted change and went back and forth to the house to keep her in paper cups. She turned eight and was baptized just before school started again. My brother Stephen gave a short talk about the Holy Ghost, and my sister Emily gave a talk about repentance. And I thought about what I’d done on Valentine’s Day.
Dad baptized Jessica, and she came out of the water smiling and fresh.
I remembered my own baptism and wished I could go back in time. It wasn’t like I’d killed someone, but I was frustrated because I had deliberately done something hurtful I couldn’t undo. If I’d hurt someone I knew, I could have gone to them and told them how sorry I was. I decided that I really needed to think about what I was doing before I did it. What we did wasn’t such a huge thing, but it preyed on my mind.
After the baptism, I found a note on my pillow:
“Dear Lauren, It seems like you’ve been having a rough time lately. If you want to talk, I have two listening ears. I want you to know how proud I am of you. You’ve been a big help with your little brothers and sisters this summer. You’re a thoughtful, kind person. I love you very much. Love, Mom.”
The next morning, I waited until everyone else had gone out to play or work. Mom was busy doing dishes.
“Mom, thanks for your note. I needed it.” I took a breath as she turned around. She was smiling until she saw my face.
“Except I’m not really such a thoughtful person.”
Mom dried her hands with a towel and asked me, “Why not?”
I didn’t want to be too specific. “I just did something mean awhile ago.”
“Did you repent of it?” Mom asked gently.
I shook my head. “I’m still trying to figure out how.”
“Do you need to talk to the bishop about this?”
“No, it wasn’t that mean. I just did something mean to people I don’t know, so I can’t even tell them I’m sorry.”
Mom looked thoughtful. “That is a tough one. But being kind and considerate to your family and everyone you come in contact with may help. You really have been wonderful with the little kids.”
School started and I was lugging my trumpet back and forth again. We put on a concert, and Jill and I did pretty well. I don’t think I played any wrong notes when we played “When the Saints Come Marching In.” I think I had finally gotten it right.
Homecoming came and went. Jill got asked to the dance, but I didn’t. It really didn’t matter. I tended my brothers and sisters while Mom and Dad went out that night. We had a good time watching a Godzilla movie, turning the sound off and making our own subtitles and monster noises.
Jill and I made plans for Halloween. We had received an answer to our prayers, finally coming up with the best thing we could think of to repent for our meanness. We did some baking and targeted certain homes in our ward.
We headed for Sister Campbell’s first. She was living by herself in a tiny farmhouse in the middle of an apple orchard. We rang the doorbell and waited.
“Treat or trick,” we yelled, when she answered the door.
“What?” asked Sister Campbell. “Oh, girls, I wasn’t expecting anyone clear out here. I’m sorry, I don’t have a scrap of candy. But you’re welcome to the apples.”
“That’s okay,” we told her. “We’re reverse trick-or-treating. We bring you the treat.” She laughed and invited us inside. She told us about the things she used to do at Halloween.
“Some of us played terrible pranks.” Jill and I looked at each other. “We knocked over an outhouse while a boy was in it.”
“Oh, no!” I laughed, though I didn’t mean to.
“I felt awful about it,” Sister Campbell said.
“What happened? Did the boy get even with you?”
Sister Campbell giggled. “I’ll say he did. He married me.”
Next we visited the Shepherd family. They have seven kids, ranging in age from three months to 12 years. We offered to help paint faces on the kids and get them into their costumes. Sister Shepherd gladly turned over their Halloween preparations to us while she finished getting dinner ready.
We took some cinnamon rolls to Brother Baird, who walked with a limp. We helped him out to his porch. Then we covered him with a blanket so he could watch the trick-or-treaters. He laughed at the costumes and the excitement of the little kids.
Last, we left notes on some porches. One went to one of our Young Women advisers, thanking her for her wonderful lessons; one to the bishop’s family to thank them for loaning their dad and husband to the ward; and one to Julie Beck, a girl a year older than us who didn’t date much and was shy and quiet. We told her what a nice person she was and how good she was with animals, since she had two well-groomed cats and a parakeet.
We signed the notes legibly this time.
We came home empty-handed but full-hearted, in time to help pass out candy to the little neighborhood ghouls. Maybe we had canceled out our Valentine’s Day mischief. We both felt better about ourselves. We felt like we had repented.
I’ve got it all down in my journal. For a while, I didn’t have anything very good to write about. But I have been writing a lot more lately. Ever since Halloween, I’ve enjoyed holidays so much more.
And life in general.