By Brian M. Howle
Once again, doggone if Christmas didn’t just sneak right up on me like so many times before. It seems to blink its presence known a leetle faster with each passing year. But, I guess that’s just the way it’s supposed to be …
So, here we all are, revved up and ready to go, scurrying here and there in search of that perfect holiday gift idea, and buying groceries in warehouse-capacity amounts in anticipation of the big family dinners. Mothers and fathers and all of Santa’s helpers scour the offerings out there in mallworld, and Sunday newspapers get heavier with the avalanche of full-color flyers and mini-catalogues. Packages in transit from one corner of the world to another are handled more often than a Florida ballot, and television and radio stations begin (well, now that this election mechanics lesson has passed, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt) to play more holiday-themed background songs on station and client commercials.
And of course, all good little southern boys and girls tweak their leetle noses in the cold, crisp December air, straining for their well-developed snow radar to catch even the faintest glimmer of hope that this year, it just might be a white Christmas.
Everybody seems to just fall right in line when the “Christmas Spirit” gets a full head of steam. And every year, the same thought echoes through my mind:
“Why can’t folks be this nice all the time?”
The only reason I have been able to ascertain – for why folks have to be so nasty all the time – is shaky at best, but I’ll run it by you anyway.
See, I think these poor individuals have somehow been dealt a cruel hand of fate at an earlier time in their lives. When the opportunity came for them to come to understand the true meaning of the “Christmas Season,” it somehow slipped past their comprehension, and without the realization that a lesson had even been missed at all, it is all but impossible for that person to ever get around to a second chance
When my friends and I were growing up in Andrews, we didn’t exactly have an inside line on compassion and tact. One of those basic facts about human beings … they tend to run in “packs” when faced with intellectual challenge and change. And children peg the scale on reaction to challenge and change.
I’m one of those who believe that we’re all born with some degree of prejudice or racism. Now, maybe a few lucky ones out there aren’t, but I can honestly say that most folks I’ve known in my life have harbored some bad feelings towards some group or individual for some reason, at some point in their lives.
For me, that point in time came during my fifth grade year.
Andrews was, at the time, still a very small town – and we didn’t get a lot of “trendy” or “radical” information from the national or world front. For us, Andrews was the center of the universe, and the universe ended just past the town limit signs.
As with children everywhere, we developed our own pecking order of leadership … and of friends. And the one cardinal rule – that was social suicide if broken – was never to step away from the pack and think for yourself.
Once I began to think about it, it occurred to me that our entire class was pretty much one big group of friends. It had its own little cliques, of course, but all in all, almost everyone was involved in our daily routines of study, play and interaction.
Except for one little girl.
I don’t know if she still lives in the area, so I won’t use her real name. I’ll call her (appropriately enough after the years of rote with the Dick and Jane books), Jane.
Jane was the poorest little girl I ever knew during our school years. And while many others didn’t have the greatest of environments to grow up in, Jane’s world must have been absolute hell.
Her wardrobe consisted of maybe six dresses, which she wore in quiet repetitiveness. Her shoes were scuffed and cut, having long since seen that showroom shine, with the obligatory newspaper shoved in the worn-out souls in a feeble attempt to ward off the wet and cold of the elements.
She came to school each morning a pure mess. Unbathed, clothes soiled, torn and stained, she almost always had dirt smudged across her face, and wielded fingernails that could make a diesel mechanic cringe.
She had bad teeth and bad breath, and lacked any inkling of the concept of dental hygiene – or personal hygiene, more importantly. Because there was one thing that created more teasing for her than any other reason:
She smelled like a garbage dump.
No, I don’t mean she had a little B.O. … I don’t mean she was just a little bit anti-odoriferous … I mean, you would literally gag at times if you happened to brush up against her.
As bad as these things were for her to cope with, I’m sure they paled in comparison to the anguish and cruelty that my friends and I heaped upon her in a daily theater of teasing and taunting.
And so, Jane continued to endure our daily diatribes against her uncleanliness and lack of good manners. Why she didn’t go Postal on us, I’ll never know. Because Lord knows, we made that poor girl’s every waking moment seem like an eternity.
Now, during our fifth grade year, our teacher decided to have everyone write their name on a small piece of paper, and put it in a box; and then have each student draw the name of a person that they were to give a class Christmas present.
I don’t know if it was because of where I was standing, or that maybe I just happened to be accidentally paying attention that day, or exactly what … but as one of my friends drew out a little scrap of paper, it unfolded itself out for all to see the name scribbled on a page of greasy stains.
As fate would have it, our teacher had momentarily stepped out into the hall to receive some message from another teacher. But, the reaction from my classmate was far beyond anything I had ever imagined – or witnessed before.
“I’m not getting her a present,” he viciously snarled, “she’ll just make it stink by the end of the day!”
Now, normally, the vast majority of insults hurled towards Jane were the “behind-her-back” variety. She was still shunned, never picked for games, and teased – but no one had ever been quite that brutal to her face. I would look at her sometimes, when someone would rag on her, and she never seemed to really have any reaction at all. She would just continue her vague stare and hide off in some corner.
But I was looking directly at her, just by chance, when my friend made that ugly declaration.
I had seen my friends fall in play and battle on a regular basis. We kept the local doctor busy enough, and some of the instances were particularly gruesome. But I had never seen another human being’s spirit and soul so devastatingly ripped from them in the cruelest throes of public humiliation. I could swear I heard the breath leave her thin, dingy body, as if she had taken a mean right hook to the stomach.
Jane ran away to the back of the room, behind the free-standing coat rack that graced each classroom, where she muffled her cries and suffered alone.
And then the teacher returned. No one mentioned what had just transpired, we all just continued on with the selection process.
After the names were all chosen, our teacher noticed that Jane didn’t have anyone exchanging with her. I heard her murmur Jane’s name to herself as she double- and triple-checked the list. But before she asked out loud, I slipped up beside her chair – terrified that someone would overhear my words – and whispered to her in a voice so light that not even God could hear me: “I’ll get something for Jane.”
She asked me to repeat myself.
I pointed to the name she had circled while making the final tallies, and just nodded at her, hoping she would make the connection and leave it at that.
I sighed a mighty breath of relief when the teacher acknowledged my request non-verbally, sparing me cries of “Brian loves Jane! “ if overheard by the rest of the pack.
When the big day came for our class Christmas Party, I made sure to slip inside our room before anyone else. I quickly placed the brightly wrapped present underneath the tree among all the other glittering and shining packages, and then blended back into the pack.
Much like the feeding frenzy inherent in sharks, when it came time for us to open up the presents, it was pure mayhem. Everyone was awash in squeals of laughter and anticipation, as the bows flew and the shredded paper showered through the air like confetti.
All the while, I kept one eye on Jane. By habit, she didn’t go to the tree and look for her present, because there was never one there for her. But our teacher noticed Jane’s name on a package, and motioned for her to come up and take the gift.
And two, separate worlds unfolded before my eyes on that day. In the background, the normal din of my friends’ raucous laughter, paper ripping, acknowledgements graciously exchanged. Same as always.
But my focus was on Jane, as she cradled the package and retreated to the safe confines of the coat rack.
I eased down one wall of the room and casually watched her, keeping one eye out as to not be caught by my peers.
Jane took forever to open that package. Unlike us, she took great pains in removing the tape, carefully peeling it off without tearing the edges of the paper. She rolled up the ribbons and tied them around the large bow, and neatly tucked them away in the pocket of her grimy coat. And as she did this, I became aware of what seemed to be a miraculous change that swept over her.
She didn’t look quite as dirty. Her hair seemed light and flaxen for the first time. And an aura of peace and joy absolutely beamed from around her. With the precious paper safely stored, she slowly opened the box. Her smile widened to a point I had never seen before. And I realized, when she smiled, she was actually sorta pretty. But normally, we didn’t give her much cause for smiles.
As she delicately retrieved the clean, new Barbie doll from its box, she abruptly looked up and zeroed-in directly on my eyes, as if she had been aware of my shadowy presence the entire time. And then she softly formed the words “Thank you” … then returned to cuddling and talking to her Barbie.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, Not only that, I couldn’t talk or signal for someone to help me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I figured I better bail into the hallway. Unnoticed, I ran into the hallway, as the celebration continued among my friends. I burst through the outer doors and fell to my knees, gasping for air and fighting off unfounded waves of nausea. Truly frightened now, I began to pray to God to save me, to explain what was happening to me. And then, He did.
I was overwhelmed with guilt and embarrassment, for all the times that I had teased this poor child with no provocation. I finally understood what “needy” truly meant, and at the same time came to be thankful for the things I had taken for granted. In short, I became a better person.
Some of you may still be a bit confused. This isn’t a story about something that I did that was great and wonderful. I only gave Jane a small, inexpensive, material gift.
She gave me the Christmas lesson.
So, as each of you head out for the holidays, I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Find the ones you love, and let them know how much you do. And please – find a child who needs a little Christmas. Participate in Toys for Tots, or one of the many other programs for the disadvantaged. Remember the reason for the season.
And, please … feel free to pass on the lesson.
The previous article was originally published in the December 12, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.