90948_000_030First-Place FictionEveryone said he was the best artist in the school. Now, just before the art show, someone better had come along, and his confidence seemed like a sand castle that would crumble any moment.
“Blast that girl!” said Arnie to himself. “Blast me, too! And blast everything that has to do with that stupid art show.”
He glanced upward towards heaven. “Why?” he asked. “Why on the day before the biggest art show of my life does she have to come to my school? What did I do wrong? What did I do to deserve this?”
Not receiving any answer, Arnie looked down at the pad he held in his hand. The beginnings of a little boy playing in the sand were sketched lightly in blue. Oh, yes, the picture would be a good one, one of his best. It would make a nice finale to his entry in the contest. But it was nothing compared to Jana Lee Smithy’s paintings in oil!
Arnie grimaced. If only she had arrived two days later! Then the judging would have been over and the art student-of-the-year award would have been his. After that Miss Jana Lee could have been the best art student in the school; it wouldn’t have mattered. But no. There she was. And she was brilliant.
Arnie threw down his pencil and groaned audibly. He glanced around the small park where he drew many of his sketches and collected ideas. What a waste of a beautiful day! But how could he be content to turn in just four drawings? Jana Lee Smithy was going to show four completed oil paintings, each a vision of color and light. When her paintings were unveiled in the morning and the school compared hers to his slight “sketches,” Arnie knew how his classmates would react. “Well,” they would say, “Arnie’s not quite as good as he makes out to be, is he?” And people would nod in assent and then never stop talking about what a genius Jana Lee was.
Arnie looked at the small boy who was unknowingly modeling for his sketch. Hurriedly and quietly the boy was building himself a castle. Tiny hands moved quickly and knowingly through the granules of yellow dirt. Wary of sand too dry or sand too wet, the boy’s small fingers gathered piles of sand together and molded them into turrets and walls. Broken twigs served as posts and pillars and flags for the castle.
Arnie wasn’t sure what everything the boy made was, but it was certainly immense. When Arnie began his drawing, the little fellow had just begun the main building. Now stables, dogs’ houses, an armory, and finally a great wall had been formed. The child was amazing. Or, thought Arnie, he would be until something better came along. Then the castle would be merely a trifle, something to be forgotten—like Arnie would be after tomorrow.
Arnie frowned and looked at his drawing. Despite its unfinished quality, he felt tempted to just leave it as it was. Nothing could help him now. Numbers of drawings couldn’t change the quality of Jana Lee’s work. Finally, discipline got the better of him. He picked up the blue pencil and finished the final details of the picture.
After another 45 minutes the picture was finished. Arnie smiled at the little figure in the drawing. The contentment on the child’s face was contagious, and Arnie grinned. It was a futile effort, he knew, like the sand castle whose immortality would lie in the little boy’s heart rather than in the park. But, like the child, Arnie felt a glow at having done a good job. The glow wasn’t big enough to fill the emptiness he felt at being a failure, but it was nice nonetheless. He gathered up his pencils and put them in their case. Carefully, he stood and, with a nod to the little boy, headed for home.
By the time Arnie reached his street, the slight high that finishing the drawing had given him was gone. Even the coziness of the familiar, flower-lined path that led to his front door had no effect. There’s not much that can make a failure happy, he reflected. The sounds of family that echoed in the air didn’t help, either. In fact, the thought of seeing his hopeful mother, proud father, and admiring sister made him want to hide. They’d all had such high hopes for him. And now he was letting them down. Arnie stood on the doorstep for a second trying to decide whether or not to tell them that he’d seen the winning entries, halfway hidden behind Mr. Olsen’s desk, and they weren’t his. Arnie shook his head. He didn’t want their sympathy. He opened the door.
“I’m home,” he called.
Sheryll, his sister, bounded past him on her way to the kitchen. “You don’t say?” she laughed over her shoulder. “I never would have guessed.”
Arnie grimaced at her. Sisters. Freshmen. Two deadly ingredients when combined. He put his supplies down on the floor and headed for the stairs. His mother’s voice caught him two steps up.
“You’re not going to leave your things here in the hall, are you?” He turned around and looked into his mother’s warning brown eyes. Arnie grinned sheepishly.
She nodded. “My visiting teachers are coming over tonight.” Arnie looked knowingly at her. “Not,” she said, raising her voice as well as her eyebrows, “that that should make any difference.”
“Of course not, Mom,” Arnie replied. He gathered his things up and took them with him to his room. Carefully, he put the drawing on his desk and his kit on the floor. Shutting his door carefully behind him, he made his way to the bathroom where he washed his hands. As he did so, he tried to smile in the mirror. It didn’t do any good. His brown hair looked unruly, his eyes dim, and his face ruddy. What a depressing sight! If my eyes looked any redder … He shrugged off the thought. What had he to complain about? He wasn’t hoping to make a living with his face, just his hands.
“Which,” he said to the face in the mirror, “are proving to be betraying assets.” Arnie went down to dinner.
As the family took their places after the prayer, Arnie’s father looked over the mashed potatoes at his son.
“So, are you ready for tomorrow, Arnie?” he asked. Arnie choked on a pea.
When his coughing had subsided he replied, “About as ready as I’m going to get, Dad.”
“Then you should be plenty ready,” said his mother.
“What were you doing this afternoon?” asked Sheryll.
“I was drawing at the park.” Arnie looked down at his plate. “I thought one more piece might help me in the contest.”
“That smacks of overkill,” said his father.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Arnie.
“Besides,” said Sheryll, “everybody in school knows how good he is. All my friends like his stuff. One more drawing will be …”
“One more drawing,” interrupted Arnie. “Enough. Isn’t there anything else to talk about?”
His mother looked at him with concern. “Are you feeling all right, Arnie?”
“Just nerves, dear,” said his father. But still, even as he spoke, Mr. Wells looked at his son with a searching look.
Arnie ducked his father’s gaze and stuck his fork into his mouth. Oops, he thought as his father’s look changed to one of amazement. I should have put something on the fork first.
“Arnie, if there’s anything …”
Frustrated, Arnie stood up. “May I be excused? I’m finished. And I’ve got to mount this last drawing.”
He could see by the surprised looks on the faces of his family that they were amazed by the sudden outburst. He continued, “I’ll be in my room.” Arnie backed out of the room and fled up the stairs.
“Well, at least they only doubted my sanity,” Arnie said to himself as he shut and locked the door behind him. “They don’t have to doubt my abilities until tomorrow.”
He looked forlornly at the drawing on his desk. “Ah, friend, if you only knew what humiliation you will face tomorrow, you wouldn’t smile so much.”
The little boy grinned at him happily. The scripture in 2 Nephi flashed into Arnie’s mind. “And men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Arnie frowned. Well, he thought, joy certainly hasn’t been my cellmate these last few hours! What’s there to be joyful about? Instead of a talent made out of silk, I get one made of a sow’s ear. And I’m supposed to be happy! He shrugged and set about making the results of his poor talent presentable.
When he finished, Arnie put his five entries on his bed and looked at them one at a time. Each of them was pleasant to look at. The laughter and light in them was enough to make any viewer smile. Each drawing represented a lot of effort. It was a pity that they would go to waste. Arnie shook his head and readied himself for bed.
After placing the five drawings and his books near the door, Arnie knelt to say his nightly prayer. “Heavenly Father,” he began. But his mind went numb. Arnie had always trusted his Father in Heaven, but this night he found it difficult to bare his soul. Before, he’d always known of his worth as a child of God. He’d never had any reason to doubt. But now, Arnie wasn’t everything that he thought he was. It was a little difficult to explain to Heavenly Father that things were different and that Arnie wasn’t quite the person he thought he had been.
Finally, after many minutes of silence, only one thing came to his mind. “I don’t understand,” he said softly, “why I am what I am. But I must be of some importance, despite my faults. Help me be happy.”
Arnie paused, then closed his prayer. He climbed slowly into bed, and after tossing and turning for a long while, drifted into sleep.
The next morning dawned much too early for Arnie’s likes. I’m not any happier, he thought, than I was last night. But he did feel a little more distanced from the despair than he had felt the night before. His drawings, as he looked at them one more time before leaving the house, didn’t look quite as inelegant as they had seemed. Still, they weren’t going to win any awards. Arnie still wasn’t quite good enough to be what was expected.
Despite Sheryll’s chatter in the car, Arnie maintained a stony silence on the way to school. Luckily, his lively sister was so excited about the competition, the weather, and her best friend’s new boyfriend, that it would have been impossible for him to have said anything had he wanted to. Finally, the ride was over. He said good-bye to his father and sister and escaped down the hall to the art department.
Voices could be heard behind the wood door as Arnie approached. He really didn’t want to see anybody just yet and was about to turn away when the door opened.
“Ah, Arnie,” said Mr. Olsen. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Arnie smiled weakly.
Mr. Olsen beamed at him. “I was just going to take Jana Lee down to where she’ll be hanging her paintings. But maybe you can show her.”
Great, thought Arnie, now I’m a glorified hall monitor.
Mr. Olsen continued. “Since you and Jana will be hanging your works next to each other, that should I make things easier for all of us. That’ll be all right, won’t it?”
Arnie sighed and turned around. He heard the sound of Jana Lee’s feet behind him.
“Wait a second, Arnie,” she said as she reached his side. Arnie turned to give her one of his pained looks. But when he saw her he stopped.
Jana Lee smiled and adjusted the paintings which had started to slip. But that wasn’t what stopped him. It wasn’t the paintings either, though they were as magnificent as ever. It was something that he saw in her eye, something that he recognized. Her eyes were as red-rimmed as his own.
Why? he thought. What had she to worry about? When she was ready, they headed towards the library. Neither said another word, though Arnie saw her looking at him once as he glanced at her.
As Arnie thought about what he had seen and what it meant, something occurred to him that he had never thought of before. In the parable of the talents, different talents were given to the servants: five talents, two talents, and one talent. Arnie had always just assumed that some people were five-talent people and some people were two-talent people. But what he knew when the image of Jana Lee’s overworked eyes sank deep into his heart was that most people started out with both talents and potential for talents. Just because you didn’t have five talents the first day didn’t mean you couldn’t have them—if you worked. Didn’t the Lord say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” to the man who began with two talents? He had started with two and had come away with four. He had done good work.
Arnie was also a worker. Perhaps, today, Arnie had two talents. But, as he thought back, he’d only begun with one. Perhaps next time, at the next competition, Arnie would have a five-talent art like Jana Lee. She, as he saw in her eyes, had worked for hers. He, as he knew in his heart, could work for his. And with that revelation, being pleased with his own work, Arnie was, for the first time in a long time, content.
He and Jana Lee reached the wall where they would hang up their works. After he helped her with the paintings, Jana Lee helped him with his drawings. When they reached the last one, that of the boy in the sand, Jana Lee smiled.
“This one’s really good,” she said. “Who was the model? He’s got such a knowing look on his face.”
“I don’t know who he was,” replied Arnie. “But he was a smart kid. And he built a great sand castle.”