From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Of Miracles, Children and

Joshua’s Jingle Bell

Each year, around Christmas, I bring out a tiny symbol from the back corners of my desk. The red satin ribbon is faded and frayed, but the shiny bell still jingles. It always brings back memories of a very special child I knew when I was a kindergarten teacher in a Cleveland public school.

It also reminds me of an important message I try to pass on to the new generation of educators: The powerful love of children can sometimes accomplish miracles.

I recall vividly how the winds from nearby Lake Erie could rattle the windowpanes in our kindergarten classroom. The school was a tall, imposing brick structure, in a neighborhood at the edge of an industrial area—not as barren or forbidding as the Flats, but still shabby and decayed. Pungent fumes from a paint factory wafted in on clear days. Banks of tall windows enclosed two sides of our room. The usual wooden cabinets held supplies.

My second year of teaching was memorable because my classroom overflowed with children—forty in the morning session and forty more in the afternoon. How could I possibly manage one more, I thought angrily, when the principal informed me, a few days after school began, that an additional youngster—a handicapped child—had been admitted.

Along with his registration form was a letter from a pediatrician, asking us to allow Joshua to participate in as many activities as his physical condition permitted, because more than anything he needed to be with children his own age. What could I say? Somehow I would have to manage.

The next morning, Joshua and his mother arrived. He was gnome-like. His head was enormous, and he had luminous black eyes, stretched out strangely at the corners. His mother gave him a last hug and kiss. The only tears were hers. Joshua’s unusual face was lit up by a broad smile during most of the morning. Clearly, he was happy to be with other children. I wished I could match his happy mood.

Joshua’s appearance was just one of his multiple handicaps. He had poor motor control, often stumbling over his own and other people’s feet. Handling a paint brush was a tremendous task. He usually grasped it in a grubby fist and splattered away with great gusto. His art projects demanded strategy and diplomacy of us all. Someone always wanted to help him cut with the scissors or to finish his work for him. But he was very determined. He wanted to do it by himself.

His Thanksgiving turkey was a complete disaster. Multicolored tail feathers emerged where the head should have been. Globs of paste oozed out as he worked, dripping down onto the floor. Time for the Christmas program was drawing near, and I began to have uneasy feelings.

Cities like Cleveland, New York and Chicago are still home to a melange of ethnic groups. Our classroom that year was a modern-day example of the old melting pot. The majority of the children were Irish, making their solo excursion into public school before joining their brothers and sisters at the local parish school. We also had Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, Germans, Hungarians and Chinese, as well as many migrants from Appalachia.

To my surprise, Joshua was accepted unconditionally by the children. The day we talked about where we were born, he was unusually animated. Why, he had been born at Lutheran Hospital, too, just like half the class. He was really one of them. He belonged.

We began to shape and polish our Christmas program. It was always a social event of the first magnitude. Parents took off from work. Mothers baked their special holiday cookies. There would be new dresses for the girls and trips to the barbershop for the boys.

There was one thing Joshua did do well. He could jingle his bell. The bells were threaded on thin red ribbons and decorated the children’s wrists. We helped to tie each other’s in a big bow, proud of the newly acquired skill. Someone was always nearby to help Joshua tie his. We shook our bells in unison, singing: “Jingle, jingle, jingle, Christmas bell. I’ve got a secret. Don’t you tell! (Shh! Shh!) Santa’s going to visit you and me. Let’s all dance merrily.”

Shuffle, slide, shuffle, slide. In a carefully rehearsed circle dance, there were many chances to jingle, jingle, jingle. Joshua’s eyes sparkled. He loved to jingle his bell. The only problem was that he hated to stop. He would jingle-jingle away, long after everyone else had finished.

A glimmer of hope flickered in my mind—perhaps his mother would sense the difficult situation and keep him home. I hated myself for the cruel thought, but I rationalized that it would be for the good of the group.

I was very, very wrong.

The day before the program, I couldn’t stand the suspense. I called his home and asked if he would be participating the next day. “Oh, yes!” his mother answered in her halting English. “He come!” The program would proceed . . . including Joshua.

The day was typical for Cleveland. Leaden gray skies heralded a cold, dismal day. It might be months before we saw the sun again. Inside our kindergarten room, though, warmth and love glowed over all. One young father came in overalls, straight from his factory job nearby. Bridget’s dad came in his fireman’s dress uniform, resplendent with polished brass buttons and shiny black shoes. Mary Chung’s family had closed the laundry for the morning. The entire clan was there, including an ancient grandmother. Joshua’s mother came with her married daughter.

As the frigid gusts howled outside, we warmed up with songs, singing of the Prince of Peace and of Santa on the rooftop. Joshua did quite well. At least, he did not fall down. There was always a helping hand stretched out at critical moments. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes shining. He was trying very hard. I found myself with an enormous lump in my throat. Tears blurred my eyes so that I could barely read the notes. Glancing over at Joshua’s mother, I could see tears on her cheeks, too.

When it came time to perform our finale, “Jingle, Jingle, Jingle, Christmas Bell,” Joshua was ready. He tinkled and shook his bell in all the right places. When forty other little fingers were placed on forty little lips in a much-rehearsed “Shh! Shh!” so were Joshua’s. He was doing everything correctly, along with the other children. He was transformed for those brief moments, freed from the burden of his physical ills. The love and warmth of the children encased him like a cocoon, and a beautiful Joshua emerged. It was a Christmas miracle.

The cookies, sumptuous with honey, figs and sesame seeds, disappeared quickly. The parents were delighted with the program. The children were only five years old, yet they had given us the best gift of all—themselves.

I went back East to visit my mother for the holidays. When I returned to school in January, there was a letter in my mailbox. It was from Joshua’s married sister, written for her mother. Joshua had died peacefully in his sleep, a few days after Christmas. The brief period he had spent in kindergarten had been the happiest in his life.

How could I possibly explain Joshua’s death to the children? They had so little idea of life’s final passage. Thinking they would understand a simple explanation best, I told them Joshua had gone to heaven.

“You mean,” Michael piped up, “he went to be one of them Christmas angels?”

What a great idea, I thought. God bless you, Michael. Dozens of little heads nodded in agreement. Oh, yes! Our Joshua was a Christmas angel now!

Each year, when I hear the church bells ring out joyously at Christmas, I look at his little bell and think of Joshua. He taught all of us—especially me—what miracles the love of children can accomplish.

Aline Stomfay-Stitz

Submitted by Carol Repella

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