An Angel for the Holidays

FESTIVITIES at school begin about a week before the Christmas vacation. The class I teach has been working hard on their studies, finishing term papers, taking tests, practicing songs for the holiday assemblies, and preparing to be Secret Santas.We write our names, teachers included, on slips of paper and drop them into a hat. Then everyone draws a slip - the name of the person whom they will surprise with gifts and small favors left in lockers and cubbies at recess and lunch for the next week: A soda for lunch, candy bars, earrings, posters; mostly silly treasures. We usually pool our money and buy a Christmas tree for the classroom so that our final presents, the sincere ones, can be placed beneath it and opened just before the final assembly. The tree follows the class to assembly and, on more than one Christmas, it has followed me home to become the family tree. I arrive at home, my book bag laden with confections from my Secret Santa, and other gifts from my students, and a fully decorated Christmas tree on the roof of the car. A slightly used tree still has a lot going for it. The question of how much to give to one's Secret Santa comes up each year and long discussions ensue over a dollar amount. Is $5 too much for a final gift? Some in the class want no spending limits, others worry about being outspent and want a universal budget. But whatever guidelines seem appropriate in the abstract fly out the window once the names are drawn and the practice of being a Secret Santa commences. Everyone finds a way of bearing gifts. Only once or twice has it been necessary for me to play secret Secret Santa for a student who forgets or ignores the ritual; I'm usually just the arbiter of good taste and translator between the sexes. "What would you want if you were a 14-year-old boy?" ask the girls. "What should I get for a girl?" ask the boys. I usually suggest a book of poems. I have yet to see my students buying one another books of poems. Trying to find out what so-and-so wanted always bothered me. When the class started leaving messages on the blackboard as to what they wanted from their Secret Santa, I felt the point had been inverted. It's giving that really makes you happy, I thought. The acme of appropriate Secret Santa-ing was causing utter delight in clever, artistic ways, not just fulfilling someone's wish list. I made The No Advertising Rule: "The blackboard is only for saying 'thank you not for saying 'I want. It occurred to me that for a group of well-off students in a suburban school, giving could be a much broader and more satisfying experience. I called my friends Bill and Rudy, who work in the city with low-income families and are in touch with the needs of their community, and asked what we could do to be of assistance. What could we give? Useful toys and winter clothing for children would be useful and appreciated, they said. So the word went out to the rest of the school: The 9th grade would be collecting toys and children's winter clothing. Check your closets for what your family no longer uses. It had to be clean, unbroken ... something that would still be precious to another child. For the last week before Christmas my classroom became a collection center. The 9th graders visited each homeroom at 8:30 in the morning and returned with the donations of the day, sorted them, threw away the junk, and packaged and labeled them for Rudy and Bill to pass along. We felt like givers, Secret Santas. People who had enough and to spare giving to people we perceived as being in want. I recalled for my students the Christmas when I was in sixth grade and the parents and teachers organized gift collection for what were then called "inner-city kids," children who but for our old toys wouldn't be having Christmas. Accompanying the grown-ups down dark hallways in run-down buildings and delivering those toys made a powerful impression on me. It was frightening to me then to observe that what was so little to me meant so much to the children I met. At the Holiday Assembly (we observe Christmas and Hanukkah) on the last day of school before vacation everyone is wearing their finest. It is a five-star occasion. The spirit of teachers and children is bright and glowing, at least with anticipation of a break from school and at best with reverence for "on earth peace, goodwill to men." We feel united in the goodness of the community in which we dwell and reminded of how we are nourished by that which we nourish. After the assembly, with the school van loaded with bags and boxes, another teacher and I, accompanied by a number of students, drove to Bill and Rudy's office, unloaded our gifts, and watched a few of the neighborhood kids select toys. It was an important connection for my class to see the faces of the kids who "wouldn't be getting any gifts at Christmas" without our effort. It made them feel powerful and generous. The next day, the first day of school vacation, one of the 9th-grade girls called me at home. Her brand new winter parka was missing, with her wallet in it, and she thought it might have been accidentally mixed in with the clothes we had taken to Bill and Rudy's. She had left it lying around in my classroom - the sorting room. I called Rudy and asked him to keep an eye out for the red parka, but he didn't hold out any hope of finding it: Everything was gone! But Rudy would not accept the possibility of a nyone being made a loser and insisted on writing a check immediately for the value of the coat, which he did. I was disappointed that our generosity had ended up costing him something. I felt we had been giving out of our abundance to people in need. Rudy saw it, however, from a better perspective. "It's all coming from the same place, brother," he said. To Rudy's sense of things we were all sharing a goodness that was simply there, and this was what ensured abundance for everyone concerned. To him abundance wasn't something that a group of people could have and give, a commodity to be garnered or purloined. I should have known better, since we had recently read lines by Richard Wilbur in English, speaking of the wedding at Cana, which had a direct bearing on our intentions. The waterpots overflowi ng with wine, made no earthly sense, unless to show/ How whatsoever love elects to bless/ Brims to a sweet excess/ That can without depletion overflow." It felt to me like the difference between saying "Peace on earth to men of goodwill," as in one Bible translation, or "Peace on earth, goodwill to men." A few days later the lost coat was found in a locker at school and restored to the owner and Rudy's check restored to him. When I called to tell him the coat had turned up, he knew immediately how it had happened. "The angel of the Lord came down out of heaven and took that coat and put it in that locker," he said, with an amen and a hallelujah, his way of expressing that feeling of the overwhelming presence of good. That Christmas, Rudy's was the angel I took home for the top of our tree.

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