Sunday, December 16, 1973.
Miss Smetana dipped the blackboard eraser in water, then wiped down the blackboard. Streaks of drying shale replaced her chalk-outlined notes of scripture and verse.
She had to do this after every Sunday class. The religion classes at the parochial school adjoining the Church of Most Pleasant Blood were shared with weekday classes, and she didn’t want Father Aloysius to suggest that the Sunday school teachers weren’t cooperating with the weekday teachers. And first grade religion teachers like Miss Smetana shared their classroom with the sixth-grade educators who still believed in the starched wimple and the knuckle-whacking ruler of obedience. Even on a chilly December Sunday morning in 1973, rules were rules and they must be obeyed.
One more panel to wipe, and she would be done for the morning. Then she could go home and take care of her parents. Laundry and dinner wouldn’t take care of themselves.
The teacher turned, and in the entranceway was Cynthia, one of her Sunday school flock. “Yes, dear?”
“Can I ask you a question about Noah’s Ark – sorry, may I please ask you a question about Noah’s Ark?”
“Why yes,” the teacher smiled, knowing that Cynthia had learned the polite difference between “can I” and “may I.” “Yes, you may. What would you like to know?”
“Why did Noah not take all the animals on the ark? Why did he leave some behind?”
Miss Smetana thought about Cynthia’s question. “I don’t recall that he left anybody behind. He took every animal, two by two, and they all boarded his ark.”
“No, he didn’t,” Cynthia replied, her voice quivering with tears. “He left some animals behind.”
“Oh, but honey, he had room in the ark for all the animals – and for his family, too.”
“But – but – I heard a song, and it said that Noah left animals behind. Why did God let those poor animals drown and die?”
Miss Smetana sat down at the desk. “Darling, I don’t know about any hymn at church that would suggest that Noah would not take everyone aboard the ark. That’s why there are animals today, because of what Noah did.”
Just then, a woman approached the classroom. “Cynthia, it’s time to go home. Say goodbye to Miss Smetana.”
“Okay, mommy,” Cynthia said, her voice still trembling with a six-year-old’s unanswered question. “Good bye, Miss Smetana. See you next Sunday.”
“See you next Sunday, my dear. Nice to see you, Mrs. Walters,” she said to Cynthia’s mother, who smiled, took Cynthia’s hand, and left the classroom.
After checking with Father Aloysius, who confirmed that the only hymns that were performed at Sunday services that day were standard recitations that neither involved Noah or any animals, Miss Smetana started her car, an old station wagon that she claimed when her parents’ failing eyesight prevented them from driving anywhere.
As she drove back to the Pines of Iverhill mobile home community in the valley, she turned on the radio. The only station anyone could hear clearly throughout Iverhill was WIVR-AM, and on-air personality Rick Heidrich was playing a mixture of holiday songs and contemporary hits.
“And here’s a cute little song for all you kids to sing along with,” Heidrich said. “Take a listen to ‘The Unicorn,” on 920 AM, WIVR.”
Oh, the Unicorn song. Miss Smetana knew it well. And as the song’s opening notes flowed through the car radio speakers, she sang along with the words, even adding a slight Irish accent to her voice. “A long time ago, when the earth was green,” she sang, “There were more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen. They’d run around free, while the earth was being born, but the loveliest of all was the unicorn.”
Miss Smetana loved to sing, and that included singing along with the radio, especially to songs that had cute little stories.
And then, she realized. She remembered all the lyrics. Especially about the ones where Noah built the ark, brought in all the animals, and then tried to get the unicorns to get on the ark, but the unicorns were playing and did not join the ark crew. The ark floated with the rising water, and the unicorns didn’t survive.
Little Cynthia Waters must have heard that song at some point, Miss Smetana thought.
I need to make a stop, she thought. Before I head home.
Sunday, December 23, 1973.
There weren’t many lessons planned for a Sunday school class two days before Christmas, so instead Miss Smetana brought in some homemade cookies for her students.
“Now, I know you all like cookies.”
The children cheered.
“But before I give them out, I want to share a little Bible story with all of you.”
In a corner of the classroom was an old phonograph, which was used by the weekday classes to play various educational records. Miss Smetana turned the phonograph on, then placed a small record on the turntable. “This is an old song about all the animals that rode on Noah’s Ark,” she said, smiling at Cynthia Waters. “There’s a story here, but I’m going to tell you the best part of the story after you hear this song.”
She then played “The Unicorn,” thanking God that Rick Heidrich at WIVR let her borrow the record from the radio station, in exchange for a batch of her homemade cookies.
After the song ended, she said, “Now, is everybody ready to hear the next part of the story?”
The kids looked at her with anticipation. Cynthia Waters, however, was still staring down at her desk.
Miss Smetana reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a big textbook, Animals of the Deep Seas, and opened the book to a bookmarked page.
“Do you see this animal?” she said, pointing at a picture of a large, whale-like creature that possessed a forehead horn.
“The proper name for this animal is a narwhal,” said Miss Smetana. “See his big horn? He uses that horn for many things. Just like another animal we know, the unicorn. Well, boys and girls, although the unicorns didn’t get to travel on Noah’s Ark, they asked God to save them. And God made sure that He didn’t forget them. As the water rose, He blessed each unicorn, and gave them the ability to swim in the seas. Of course, he kept the unicorn horn on each one of them, because without it, they wouldn’t be a special as they are.”
She then glanced at Cynthia Waters, who went from dejection to intense curiosity.
“So always remember, boys and girls. God will never let you down. He will always find a way to save you, if you truly want to be saved.”
And for many years after that day, the story of the Unicorn and the Narwhal became a regular part of Miss Smetana’s Sunday school classes.
Years later, when Miss Smetana finally retired from teaching, she was more than happy to attend the first classes of the new Sunday school teacher.
She even showed the teacher – Miss Cynthia Waters – the best way to wipe down the blackboards.