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“Imagine you had only one day left on earth. What would you do with it?”
I read Ms. Bixby’s Last Day in a single sitting, on an airplane en route to California for vacation. My mind, filled with excitement of the week to come, full of big events and exciting outings, slowed and focused as I turned the first pages of John David Anderson‘s novel.
Three hours and many tissues later, I set the book down as we hit the tarmac, looking at vacation in a new light.
There are many things to say about this book. I could write about teachers and the tremendous impact they have in the lives of our students, or tell you about the ones that mattered most to me. I could write about boy friendship and the way it is honestly explored and depicted in Topher, Steve, and Brand. I could write about the ways our small acts of kindness to one another have a ripple effect, beyond our wildest imagination, or about what it means to be truly seen by another person and celebrated for who we are. All of these themes appear in the pages of this at times vulnerable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, always perfectly voiced novel.
But instead, I’m going to write about carnations. As in, the flowers.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day tells the story of three friends, a beloved teacher, and a one-day adventure that ultimately changes them all. Anderson skillfully switches points of view in each chapter so the reader experiences the story through the eyes of Topher, Steve and Brand as they attempt to bring their teacher, Ms. Bixby, her perfect day when she must suddenly leave her school with a serious health crisis. Inspired by a class writing prompt to describe their last day on earth, the boys set out on a sort of treasure hunt to collect the items Ms. Bixby mentioned in her own example of a perfect last day:
Raspberry White Chocolate Supreme Cheesecake from Michelle’s Bakery
A bottle of wine
Large McDonald’s french fries with lots of salt
Music. Tchaikovsky. Or Beethoven.
And one boy is in search of one final item, an item not on Ms. Bixby’s list:
Carnations are Ms. Bixby’s favorite flower. They are often regarded as the fillers in a larger bouquet of more exotic and unique flowers. They are the flowers of the gas station counter, flowers you can purchase from a pocketful of change found in the car. Ask someone their favorite flower and you’ll hear a hundred other blooms before you hear carnation. Yet, Ms. Bixby sees their beauty.
“The truth is—the whole truth is—that it’s not the last day that matters most. It’s the ones in between, the ones you get the chance to look back on. They’re the carnation days. They may not stand out the most at first, but they stay with you the longest.”
For Topher, a carnation day is sketching a classmate during a math lesson, pizza for lunch, a family dinner with both parents at home.
For Steve, a carnation day means a trip to a comic book store, an afternoon by the creek with Topher and his parents talking to him about something other than school.
For Brand, a carnation day is as simple as sitting on his front porch with his dad, reading Ms. Bixby’s latest book recommendation and waiting for his friends to come over for a sleepover.
And for Ms. Bixby, a carnation day was the best gift of all. Her students, a piece of cheesecake, a drawer full of folders, a day in the sun. Ms. Bixby knew that carnations days are what it’s all about.
We post pictures of our vacations on social media. We tape awards and certificates to the fridge. We countdown to the big holidays. We revel in the highlight reel, but hidden in every ordinary moment are the makings of a carnation day.
A goodbye kiss on the way out the front door.
A smile from a stranger on the bus.
Pizza day in the cafeteria.
A chapter devoured in a good book.
A funny text from a friend.
A sloppy kiss from your dog when you walk in the front door.
A pick-up game of basketball in the driveway.
A held hand.
A belly laugh.
A sunset that stops you in your tracks.
I got on another airplane home a week after closing the pages of this book, grateful for having read it. That week did include a lot big days and new experiences, but it also included a lot of ordinary magic. Coffee in the morning with my family. Coloring with my niece. Catching a few minutes of my hockey playing nephew on the ice. My boys digging holes in the sand with their dad. Jacarandas in bloom. Sweater weather in May.
I might have missed the carnations if it weren’t for Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Week of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day here at All The Wonders. You’ll find a roundup of MS. BIXBY-related multimedia, a reflection on teachers and their stories by Hannah Barnaby, and finally, a very special, exclusive post from author John David Anderson and editor Jordan Brown!