I’m a covert Scrooge. I’ve got humbug, much like ice water, running through my veins. I say ‘covert’ because as a father and one-time elementary school teacher, I appreciate that my own misgivings about the holiday are best kept to myself. But now? Now, I can feel the shackles of the season loosening just a bit. These days, I teach older kids so there is no myth to which I must contribute. Santa is long gone. His sleigh dust has settled at my feet. And my own kids? Pre-launch. The days of no tree or lights are there on my horizon. Look, I’m sure I speak for plenty of dads too scared to utter their honesty; too frightened to speak out against the bully that is Christmas.
Christmas is no holiday. It’s a part time job. Yeah, it’s what every man wants—time off from work to pick up a side gig with no paycheck. Hell, my kids ask me for money to buy me gifts. No one really wants that. This is what I love so much about Thanksgiving. You feel some gratitude, eat a meal and maybe finish up with a nap. Now that’s a holiday I can get behind.
The season brings a mild sense of dread. If those damn ghosts ever visit me in the middle of the night, I will tell them to turn around and float their little white asses right back through that wall. I teach middle school Mr. Marley, so I am going to greener pastures when my time comes with or without your lame holiday guilt. As for that guilt—really? I grew up with a chain smoking New Jersey mother. I am immune to guilt. Good day, sir.
Are you feeling the holiday cheer yet? I know. I claimed this was a holiday tale, then took you down the wrong rabbit hole. Sorry. I’m getting there. Kicking and screaming, but I am getting there. Pay-off is coming.
This one starts when I notice how disheveled Nathan seems in November. All kids have a morning here or there, but his sloppy look is consistent for about a week or so. When I ask him about it, he confides his secret new life to me. He is part-time homeless now. He has a legal address, but not much else. Relatives take turns sleeping in this tiny apartment, so a few nights a week he sleeps in the car. You hear it often enough. Kids fall through the cracks. Right now, I am literally watching him sit right on top of this crack we speak about all the time. This legal address keeps him out of foster care, so his illusions of normalcy may rattle on a little longer. I realize that topic sentences and literary themes are of no importance now.
A short time later I notice that his signature red hoodie is missing. It’s probably one of the few items he owns at the moment, and he looks cold.
“Where’s the red hoodie?”
“I think I left it at the gas station when I was getting ready for school the other morning.” There is a surrender in his voice that I have heard before. It is the sound of someone learning how not to cry.
There’s not much to do. But a hoodie? A hoodie, I can manage. I pick up a red replacement and a spare. I spot one of those tight thermal undershirts skiers and skaters wear in the snow. He’s now one of the first kids sitting in our quad most mornings. He sits and devours every part of breakfast. No one’s around yet, so I slip him the bag. He peeks inside. He nods out of pure relief, and quickly puts on one of the hoodies.
“What’s this?” he asks, pulling out the sleeve of the thermal.
“It’s a special thermal undershirt for warmth. Skiers wear them.”
“And kids sleeping in cars,” he adds laughing. Feels like his first genuine laugh in a week or so. A sense of humor can be a hell of a coping mechanism. I’m glad to see that his remains intact.
The winter break is a few days away and I’m thinking about how Nathan might eat or not eat over the next two weeks. He’s guaranteed two meals a day at school. In the past I remember asking the district why school lunches were so high in calories, I was told that the school lunch is decided with the student struggling with poverty in mind. For those students, it might be the only hot meal they get; high caloric content is a middle class concern.
So, strategically, I decide to get him a gift card to 7-Eleven. There is one close to the place where his mom parks some nights. Also, there is one near our school. My thought is that if he is walking around with friends, he might reclaim a moment of normalcy and stop in with them and grab a Slurpee and chips as if nothing is wrong. He’s got the card. When everything is wrong, a moment to forget can certainly go a long way. He slips the card in his pocket quickly. You can see his shoulders ease just a bit underneath the hoodie. It’s not much, but it should help.
A day later, even the best of students can’t contain themselves as they sit on the edge of vacation. Me either. Mornings without an alarm? Paradise. The final bell rings and you just hope weaker children aren’t trampled on the way out. You can see teachers crawling over kids just to get to their cars. I make a quick bathroom stop before I join the fray.
I come back, go to my desk to gather up candies and cards before I leave, and there it is. A gift. It had been slipped onto the desk while I was out. It’s not gift wrapped. Complete with a card. It’s a muscle magazine because he knows I like the gym. And yes, it was purchased at 7-Eleven. Only one word written on the card: Thank you. Just thank you. No other words written. No other words necessary. I feel the need to take a seat. The parking lot is too frenzied to leave now, anyway. I just sit. For quite a while, I just sit there.
I’d like to tell you that I when I stood again, I was renewed with a child-like zeal and I embodied the holiday and relished all its intricacies. That was never going to happen. But this? This was Christmas. You can keep your tinsel and overpriced toys and gadgets. This was Christmas. The little drummer boy and the magi’s gift all at once. A humble child with a gift to give. I can celebrate that. Perhaps every present I give or get for quite some time will remind me of this one profound gift.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent best seller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, maniacyak.