16: My Christmas Lesson

16: My Christmas Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

My Christmas Lesson

Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts.

~Janice Maeditere

It was the last day before Christmas vacation and the last day of my student teaching assignment. I’d spent three months with a wonderful mentor and a great group of fifth-graders. Walking through the door I knew this day was both an end and a beginning. No longer a student teacher, I would become a teacher in my own right. But this would be my last day with these children I already considered “mine.” It went by so quickly, and I wasn’t ready to leave them behind.

I would have less than an hour before my class rushed off for lunch. The afternoon was set aside for the Christmas party. I wanted my final lesson to resonate within the children, to linger in their minds and inspire them. I’d struggled for days preparing it, honing each word with surgical precision until it was perfect.

Teachers are supposed to touch young lives and change them for the better; at least that was my philosophy. I wanted to make a difference not only in the children today, but one that would continue on and revive my hometown. Once a thriving community, it suffered economic collapse when the mills closed more than twenty years ago. No longer called the Steel Valley, the area was now known as the Rust Belt.

Many families moved away, as had mine. But I came back home to complete my student teaching assignment, hoping to show this new generation the value of education. More than half the children came from families where college was the exception. For generations the graduating class went straight from commencement into the mill. The median income plummeted when it shut down, and poverty had become a way of life. I knew I could make a difference. My lesson, the last before Christmas vacation, would be impossible to forget.

I was almost to my classroom when another teacher asked me to stay with her class for a few minutes. I smiled and nodded, struggling to hide my rising irritation. After all, there was so little time in the first place. She must know how important this day was. My lesson was planned out, timed with absolute precision. How could I sacrifice even a minute when each word was crucial? I grumbled a silent prayer, asking God to help me squeeze it all in.

A few minutes stretched into fifteen before she came back, apologized and rushed me across the hall. I opened the door and twenty-nine children shouted “Surprise!”

There were new decorations added to the holiday ones from the day before. Over the chalkboard was a banner with “Congratulations!” printed across it. Every child had signed and decorated it. I was swept up in a tangle of arms and led to a table heaped with gifts. Before long I could barely see over the holiday towels, mugs, candles, perfume, candy and jewelry.

Awed by the outpouring of love, I took time opening each gift and thanked each giver. By the time I’d opened the last gift on the table it was almost lunchtime. The room was a little quieter now and I realized that I’d received a gift from all but one of the children. It was so much more than I could ever have expected.

I looked around the room. Most of the children were grouped in twos and threes, talking and working on holiday puzzles as they waited for the bell. Joey sat alone, but that wasn’t unusual. He was only in the room for morning attendance and lunch, spending the rest of the day in a Special Education class.

I barely knew him, but his ill-fitting clothes and bony frame marked him as one of the poorest of the poor. He hunched over a piece of paper, his tiny nub of pencil flitting across it. His hand darted into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled dollar. He smoothed the bill, laid it on the paper and folded the paper into an envelope around it. He ran to the supply basket, dashed back and sealed the paper envelope with a gold star.

The students stood at the door, ready for lunch. Instead of his usual place at the front of the line, Joey hung back and sidled over toward me when the bell rang. He ducked his head, scuffed his foot and held out the envelope.

“Merry Christmas! You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.” His cheeks flushed above a smile wider than seemed possible.

I seldom find myself with nothing to say, but I was speechless. I couldn’t take his only dollar! I paused a moment too long, and his smile began to fade. Three words jumped into my mind: the widow’s mite. God blessed her small offering, knowing it was all she had. How could I hurt Joey’s feelings by refusing his gift?

“Thank you, Joey. I’m really going to miss you.” I opened the envelope. Inside, sketched in pencil, was a Christmas tree, with a star on top.

“This is beautiful! I didn’t know you were such an artist.” I tucked the dollar in my pocket and put the picture on top of the other cards. The room was empty. Joey would be at the end of the lunch line.

“Would you have lunch with me, since this is my last day? We can bring our trays up here.”

“You mean I can have a teacher’s lunch?” Wide-eyed, he grinned again.

“Of course. My treat. We can even have pizza if you want.” I took him to the back of the kitchen, where teachers get adult-sized meals. We went back to the classroom and he showed me a notebook full of sketches. Most were trucks, cars or planes drawn with amazing detail.

Soon the other students returned. The rest of the day was spent eating cookies and playing games. When the final bell rang I hugged each child. And as for that final, oh so important, lesson I had planned? I never taught it. I learned one instead.

~Anna M. Lowther

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