It seemed like an ordinary day at Normalsville School. Mrs. Thuddlespill, the fourth grade teacher, was late because she had misplaced her keys. Mr. Applebee, the janitor, arrived in a fowl mood because Mrs. Applebee had burned his oatmeal. And the Kinkade sisters were arguing over whose fault it was that the hot chocolate had spilled in the back seat of the car. Minnie Kinkade said it wasn’t her fault because her sister Maxie had bumped her arm and made the chocolate spill. Maxie claimed that it couldn’t be her fault because she hadn’t even brought hot chocolate into the car. She had simply reached over to snatch her library book off the seat near Minnie and put it in her bookbag when the incident occurred. Mrs. Kinkade hadn’t seen the encounter, had only heard the scuffle and was trying to decide from facial expressions who was the root cause. So far this morning there weren’t enough clues for conviction. So as the girls bickered their way into the restroom to clean up and as other cars arrived and spilled out their loads onto the school parking lot…it seemed indeed to be as normal a day as Normalsville School had ever experienced. No one could have predicted what was going to subtly begin on that fateful day.
The school bell rang as Martin, nose in a book, slid into his seat. Janie, cautious as a shoplifter, lifted her desktop and wedged in her purple sparkled lip-gloss container, eyes never leaving Mrs. Thuddlespill’s warden-like glances that would sweep the classroom every few minutes. Horace wasn’t as lucky. His paper airplane, tightly pressed and streamlined as it was, had been detected from it’s launch pad and now lay crushed in the bottom of the waste basket by the teacher’s tight grip, never to know the thrill of free flight over the classroom.
Thomas, was frantically reviewing spelling words since he had forgotten the list the night before, and was wondering if it was even legal to include a bonus word like “procrastination” in fourth grade. As he was trying to figure out what its definition was he heard the fateful words “take out a piece of paper and number from one to 32.” He was probably doomed to his normal C-. But none of that seemed in anyway out of the ordinary for a day at Normalsville School.
What was eerie, had they seen it, was the animal-like machine that had mysteriously appeared on the playground, and the slimy green hands that had scooted it, ever so carefully, passed the rose bushes and around the ball box to lodge successfully right in the path of the only drinking fountain that still worked on the Normalsville School playground.
Janie was the first to notice it at recess and since the swings had lines three deep who were counting to 100, she stopped to admire it’s dazzling shine. It was so clear she could even apply her purple sparkling lip gloss in her image that reflected off its gleaming metallic sides. Martin seemed tantalized by the flashing red button on top and since the neatly printed sign that hung on the machine said “Do not touch” he seemed compelled to reach out and press it lightly. All of a sudden noises and smoke sputtered out, and in the out tray there appeared a small piece of paper that read “SMART”. Martin picked up the paper, and his book that had fallen with the commotion and headed out to his favorite tree to read. Janie had seen the word and spread the news that the machine had labeled Martin “SMART”. She promptly pushed the button herself and found that her paper read “PRETTY”. Never had the purple lip gloss covered such a radiant smile as when Janie reached down to pick up her piece of paper and tuck it into the front pocket on her fluffy, pink, cashmere sweater. The other children gathered around and began in turn to push the button themselves. Horace got “FUNNY” which wasn’t as nice as “SMART”, but not as bad as Maxie’s which was “CLUMSY”.
Everybody felt bad when Thomas pushed the button
and got “DUMB”, but since they didn’t know how the machine worked and who had even brought it there they just tried not to make a big deal of it and ran off to play foursquare. When Minnie saw them run off she pushed the button and was horrified to see the word “LIAR” lying in the tray. She stuffed the paper as quick as she could into her sock and ran off to the bathroom to wipe a little more chocolate that had dripped into the same sock. Since she was the only one who had read her word she ripped it quietly into little pieces and let the pieces drop one by one into the trash barrel. This was one paper that no one else would ever see.
No one meant to start the habit. Since it was the beginning of the year and they were all still trying to remember each other’s names anyway soon it seemed easier to call each other by the word the machine had spilled out. When Martin remembered that Andrew Jackson was impeached during history Mrs. Thuddlespill even forgot herself and called him “SMART”. When Thomas got his spelling test back with a big C- they all heard someone whisper “DUMB” from the back of the classroom. All the children denied they had said it and while they were arguing and denying responsibility, Mrs. Thuddlespill thought she saw something green slip through the door in all the confusion. When Mr. Applebee had to unlock the teacher’s room for Mrs. Thuddlespill, who had left her keys inside, the kids who were nearby heard him mutter “FORGETFUL!” and when he turned on his heels and headed for his janitorial closet they also heard her mumble “CRANKY!” in his direction. So it began that gradually the children grew comfortable with the labels and soon couldn’t even remember the real names of their friends and others.
Some people visited the machine daily to see who they were. Others didn’t wait for the machine and tried to write out their own labels. The children found out that if you put a lot of money into the machine you might get the word “RICH”, which wasn’t such a bad word to wear. Sally found that when she stayed after snack and helped wash down the tables the machine spewed out “HELPFUL”. Bringing exceptional cupcakes and pizza on your birthday might bring the label “POPULAR” and both grownups and children were always proud of that word. Some who got words like “ATHLETIC” were so proud that they stitched their word on clothing for others to admire. When occasionally someone got the dreaded word “UGLY” they sometimes tried to camouflage it by adding an “H” at the front with a marker. Once the machine gave you a word that was it. You were stuck. No matter how the children tried not to, they always ended up calling each other by the word the machine had identified you with.
Then one day Mrs. Thuddlespill got the flu or she couldn’t find her keys longer than usual and the principal, whom the machine had labeled “COMPETANT” got on the phone and hired a substitute for the day.
As the children entered the classroom they noticed the absence of green and black, the newly adopted school colors. The substitute seemed to pause momentarily at each desk with a soft smile mouthing words no student could hear. They were curious about her since no name was written on the blackboard and since they had never had her before at the school.
The first thing she did was to assign the students to decorate a name tag for the day. Most, out of habit, took out the piece of paper they had received from the machine and began to color pictures on it that reflected its theme. Her loving eyes watched Thomas as he fumbled around in his desk, knowing his tag was in there, but not wanting to bring it out into the open. She abruptly picked up a pad of paper and wrote out in big letters that almost made the class gasp “BRIGHT” and handed it to Thomas, whose mouth had dropped open. She quickly passed out words to others like "LOVING”, “GROWING” and “IN PROGRESS”. Minnie was delighted to receive “TRUTH”. She colored it with yellow highlighter and hung it proudly on the front of her desk.
At recess time instead of scooting off to the teacher’s lounge for a cup of coffee, this strange lady called for Mr. Applebee and together with somewhat of a struggle they pushed and pulled the ugly machine over to the dumpster. She had told him it was a definite hazard and in a very dangerous location. After he had been so helpful she smiled sweetly and called him “KIND”. He whistled his way back to the janitor’s closet and some kids thought he was actually smiling. Halfway through the day someone finally got up the nerve to ask her name to which she replied by walking to the chalkboard and writing in big white capital letters “MRS. NEWLIGHT”.
By the end of the day children were starting to become accustomed to their new names. They wanted to take home their name tags to share them with their parents and Mrs. Newlight said that that was not only a fine idea, but mandatory homework for the evening.
The next morning appeared similar to hundreds of mornings in Normalsville, yet different. As Mrs. Thuddlespill hunted for her keys outside the classroom door, Mr. Applebee hurried to apply his master key to the lock with a smile. As Mrs. Thuddlespill went in we heard him say “FORGIVEN” in a quiet, low voice. The first thing Thomas did was to place his name tag in a central location on his desk, right next to the B+ spelling test he had just received back. Mrs. Thuddlespill noticed the new tag and made a mental note of his improvement in schoolwork. And that’s how the days went until Tuesday when the school board voted to rename the school “POTENIALVILLE”.
ISA 62:2b And you will be called by a new name, Which the mouth of the Lord will designate.