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Nobody Knows the Difference

School volunteers don't get paid money, but sometimes we receive special gifts. One morning, just before Christmas vacation, I was selling tickets to our grade school's last evening performance of The Nutcracker. The evening before had been a sell out. People had lined the walls of the auditorium. Some had even peeked in from outside to watch the show.

One of my customers that day was a parent.

"I think it's awful that I have to pay to see my own child perform," she announced, yanking a wallet from her purse.

"The school asks for a voluntary donation to help pay for scenery and costumes," I explained, "but no one has to pay. You're welcome to all the tickets you need."

"Oh, I'll pay," she grumbled. "Two adults and a child." She plunked down a ten-dollar bill. I gave her the change and her tickets. She stepped aside, fumbling with her purse. That's when the boy waiting behind her emptied a pocketful of change onto the table.

"How many tickets?" I asked.

"I don't need tickets," he said. "I'm paying." He pushed the coins across the table.

"But you'll need tickets to see the show tonight."

He shook his head. "I've already seen the show."

All the school children saw The Nutcracker with their classes. The donation was for evening performances only. I pushed the pile of nickels, dimes and quarters back. "You don't have to pay to see the show with your class," I told him. "That's free."

"No," the boy insisted. "I saw it last night. My brother and I arrived late. We couldn't find anyone to buy tickets from, so we just walked in."

Lots of people in that crowd had probably "just walked in." The few volunteers present couldn't check everyone for a ticket. Who would argue anyway? As I'd told the parent ahead of this boy, the donation was voluntary.

He pushed his money back to me. "I'm paying now for last night," he said.

I knew this boy and his brother must have squeezed into the back of that crowd. And being late to boot, they couldn't possibly have seen the whole show. I hated to take his money. A pile of coins in a kid's hand is usually carefully saved allowance money. I wondered what he'd like to buy with it instead.

"If the ticket table was closed when you got there, you couldn't pay," I reasoned.

"That's what my brother said."

"Nobody knows the difference," I assured him. "Don't worry about it."

Thinking the matter was settled, I started to push the coins back. He put his hand on mine.

"I know the difference."

For one silent moment our hands bridged the money. Then I spoke. "Two tickets cost two dollars."

The pile of coins added up to the correct amount. "Thank you," I said.

The boy smiled, turned away, and was gone.

"Excuse me."

I looked up, surprised to see the woman who had bought her own tickets moments earlier. She was still there, purse open, change and tickets in hand.

"Why don't you keep this change," she said quietly. "The scenery is beautiful and those costumes couldn't have been cheap." She handed me a few dollar bills, closed her purse and left.

Little did he know that he had given us both our first gift of the Christmas season.

By Deborah J. Rasmussen
from Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul
Copyright 1998 by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Hansen and Irene Dunlap

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