For years one of my favorite stories to teach in middle school was Walter Dean Myers’ “The Treasure of Lemon Brown.” Greg Ridley, a teenage boy, leaves his tenement apartment one night, frustrated that his father won’t let him try out for the school basketball team because his grades aren’t strong. The boy walks in the rain until he finds an abandoned building and steps inside to stay dry. There he meets Lemon Brown.
Brown, once a rising blues singer, is covered in layers of ragged clothes and sleeping in the abandoned building for a night or two before continuing to St. Louis to see his daughter. He and Greg have a conversation.
“You ain’t one of them bad boys looking for my treasure is you?” [says Lemon].
“I’m not looking for your treasure,” Greg answered, smiling. “If you even have one.”
“What you mean, if I have one?” Lemon Brown said. “Every man got a treasure. You don’t know that you must be a fool!”
Greg doubts there is any real treasure in Brown’s possession. He views Brown as a lonely vagrant who probably doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. It’s at this point that three “neighborhood thugs” show up looking for the treasure they had heard Brown mention. Eventually, Brown is able to scare them off.
Then Greg finally gets up the courage to ask Brown what “treasure” was worth taking such a dangerous risk.
Lemon Brown sits and slowly loosens a tattered package from a side pocket and unties the rags around it. Inside are some newspaper clippings and an old harmonica Brown had once given to his son years before.
The clippings were ancient headlines announcing up-and-comer Sweet Lemon Brown, a talented blues singer and harmonica player appearing at a number of fancy clubs. The harmonica was badly dented.
Greg didn’t understand the value of the old clippings and the harmonica. Lemon Brown explained that he had been a traveling musician, working hard to provide for his wife and young son. When his wife died, his son had gone to live with an aunt, and Lemon had not seen his son as often as he would have liked due to his touring schedule. When his son became a man, he joined the military. Shortly after, Brown received a letter saying his son had been killed in “the war.” He also received a package containing all the personal items found on his son at the time of his death: the newspaper clippings of his father and the harmonica.
Lemon Brown was humbled by his son’s personal belongings. They became his treasure.
Brown told Greg, “Him carrying it around with him like that told me it meant something to him. That was my treasure, and when I give it to him, he treated it just like that, a treasure. Ain’t that something?”
Greg started to understand.
The son’s love had kept Lemon Brown going all those years, even long after his son was killed. Greg thought of his own father’s words about keeping his grades up and his priorities straight. Suddenly, his father seemed to make more sense. He realized he was his father’s treasure. He parted ways with Lemon Brown and thanked him for the time they shared.
I would finish our study of Lemon Brown by having students write about their own treasures. Sometimes a hand would rise somewhere in the room, and a student would ask innocently, “Mr. Donohue, what if we don’t have a treasure to write about?”
I would smile and turn again to the point in the story where Lemon Browns reminds Greg of the story’s central message and read aloud, “Every man got a treasure.”
As we mourn the passing of Walter Dean Myers, it might be an appropriate time to remind each other about our treasures. Mr. Myers’ treasure to us was his gift of beautiful writing, with its poignant life lessons and heart-wrenching stories.
In memory of Walter Dean Myers and his many written treasures.
August 12, 1937 – July 1, 2014
Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.