I hope all of you have a wonder-filled holiday season. Just remember that some of our families will have a tough time away from school. Allow me to share a story I wrote when I was 14, recalling one Christmas.
It was over ten years ago, but I can still remember many of the things that happened that Christmas as if it were yesterday. We lived in a very poor neighborhood in Colorado Springs, a half mile from Helen Hunt Elementary School. My father was in Korea, and my mother was ready to have her eighth child.
I remember Mae, my oldest sister, held Susie who was only twelve months old while the rest of us huddled close to her as the taxi cab disappeared around the corner with my mother in the back.
For a little while I felt kind of helpless; we all did. But then, as if her spirit were there to remind us, we remembered that we had promised to be good and “ganbatte”, the Japanese equivalent for “you’ve got to succeed.” Mae took responsibility and hurried us into the house.
Within an hour, a babysitter came over. Her name was Mrs. Kanuke, and she was the meanest and laziest person I had ever known.
Oh, how I hated that lady, and so did my brothers and sisters. She would make Mae, who was only nine, sweep and wash the floor every day for a week without even lifting a finger to help. And it was really painful to obey her when she told us to stay away from my crying, frightened, little brother for fear we would “spoil” him. Moreover, Mrs. Kanuke would make us dip our bread in our tomato soup even though she knew we didn’t like it that way. She was also wasteful, using more than one bag to make our tea. Nevertheless, we tried to be patient, and every day with her just made us long for our mother even more.
During the week, someone, either a neighbor or Red Cross worker, brought a Christmas tree to our house. Mae got some bulbs and we started to decorate it. I remember I wanted to put a bulb at least halfway up the tree, so I reached up and grabbed a branch and down it came. That tree must have fallen about five times, and each time several bulbs and a couple of branches were broken. No one got mad though (Mrs. Kanuke was not there for some reason). We just had a really fun time. And when we were done, we sat around and admired it. It was about the prettiest Christmas tree I have ever seen, broken bulbs and all.
The days passed slowly, and except for the fact that we missed our mother, we were truly happy and excited. Christmas was only a few days away. I loved to hear my sister tell stories of Rudolf and Frostie the Snowman. We played games and tried to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” without any mistakes. We sang it for about an hour and then gave up.
Then one evening, Mrs. Kanuke answered the telephone and indifferently told us that our mother would be home in two days. I’ll bet everyone in the neighborhood heard our screams of happiness. We jumped and danced around the house and for some reason started congratulating each other. With that news, our Christmas spirit increased tenfold and we felt like singing carols.
It was neat. You should have seen how we lined up several chairs right in a row with my oldest sister’s chair facing ours, and we sang. Oh how we did sing. We sang for the snowflakes collecting on the porch. We sang for warm feet and a place to live. We sang for our oatmeal every morning. We sang for living and happiness and freedom and patience. We sang for togetherness, baby Jesus, and the thought that our mother would soon be home.
At that moment, we didn’t know want. We didn’t need packages beneath the tree. We didn’t need eggnog, or multi-colored lights, or stockings full of sweets. We knew no other kind of Christmas. As far as I knew, people all over the world were enjoying Christmas just like I was.
We sang for about an hour and then Mrs. Kanuke told us to go to bed. Reluctantly we went to our rooms and crawled into bed. When the light went out, I went over to the window by my bed being careful not to disturb my two brothers who slept in the same bed with me. I just watched the snow fall and hoped and waited for a taxi to pull up in front of our house.
A couple of days later, I think it was the 23rd, my mother came home carrying my new little sister in a big Christmas stocking. After my mother paid Mrs. Kanuke and bid her goodnight, we grabbed at our mother. We had a million things to tell her about that mean, old lady and the tree and everything.
Later that evening, a man from the Red Cross came and delivered some presents, one for each of us. I remember wondering why he didn’t wear a red and white suit.
The kids got involved in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, and while they were busy playing that, I stole into the room where my mother lay and climbed up next to her. I asked if I could hold the baby for a little while, and she let me for a couple of minutes. After looking at my sister’s cherubic face, I asked my mother if she had wished for a baby for Christmas. She just looked at me sadly. Then I wished my mom a merry Christmas, and she started crying. I cried too.
That’s all I have to say about that . . . well, maybe just one thing: for four-year-old me and many children like me, school was a sanctuary and a place of kindness and hope. I am forever grateful to my teachers. I am grateful too that along with kindness my teachers held high expectations for me and for themselves. They never let my family’s poverty, my “at risk” status, or my speech problems, deter them from pushing me to reach my potential. When I hear someone say, “you have to understand that these children have tough home lives – you can’t expect them to learn at the same rate as the other students,” I can’t help but wonder how my life would have turned out if my teachers had lowered expectations for me.
I am grateful too that along with kindness my teachers held high expectations for me and for themselves. They never let my family’s poverty, my “at risk” status, or my speech problems, deter them from pushing me to reach my potential. When I hear someone say, “you have to understand that these children have tough home lives – you can’t expect them to learn at the same rate as the other students,” I can’t help but wonder how my life would have turned out if my teachers had lowered expectations for me.
So, when our students return from winter break. We’re going to be so glad to see them, and we’re going to show them kindness and give them hope. And we are going to raise our own level of play and our expectations and provide all students with the best education possible.