From the Relief Society Magazine January 1951 –
A Christmas Gift for Teacher
By Fae Decker Dix
Miss Brown was staying late the night before school closed for the holidays. She must rearrange the last bit of tinsel, and set the star aright at the top of the tree, and hang the candy canes just so along the red and green paper ropes that the children had stretched across the back of the room. The candy canes were her gift to the children. Each year she saved carefully from her salary check to buy sizable ones for every child.
Being a stickler for sanitation, she re-examined the canes to make certain their cellophane wrappings were secure, and that each bore its own Christmas tag tired on with red ribbons. To Mary from Miss Brown, To Paul from Miss Brown, To Joe – Miss Brown sighed. To think of Joe was to stir in her heart the old longing to help him find status in the room with the other children. Perhaps her own love and understanding were the only way now. To Peter from Miss Brown, To Sharon – to Jimmy. Her blue eyes lighted with laughter as she thought of Jimmy Mack’s grimy hands which would have the cellophane peeled and gone in no time, and the bright red and white stripes of the candy cane interspersed with smudgy stripes of his own making. Phyllis Lawn, who sat next to him, would look with immaculate disdain upon his greed, but Jimmy would be happy with the elaborate unconcern of most third grade boys.
Miss Brown sat for a moment upon the edge of the sand box and permitted herself the luxury of slumping. It might ease the ache between her shoulder blades. She pushed her hands up through her smooth brown hair, removed and replaced her side combs, sighing a little as she contemplated the bustling tomorrow ahead. Getting ready for the holidays of a school year was one of the fun things in a schoolteacher’s life, and one of the hard things, too. You barely had the Halloween goblins behind your back, when Thanksgiving was there in the hall, and the children were brimming with ideas for painting turkeys and filling cornucopias with the colorful harvest from their own autumn gardens. The turkeys had only just had time to follow the Pilgrims down from the borders and bulletin boards, when holly and mistletoe and gay Christmas bells trooped in for their place.
Billy Jenkins had announced on November thirtieth that he and his daddy would bring the class their Christmas tree this year. On December first it was there, with wide green boughs outstretched like benevolent arms. The children beamed and screeched in delight when they came next morning to be greeted by the woodsy odor of the pine. They began at once to think of the proper ornament for each twig, and what to put at the top, and what to wrap around the base. They wanted to make their own Christmas chains for it. And for weeks the room had shimmered with red and green circles linked together in long, pasted chains. And teacher’s desk was piled high with pictures of the Christ Child, and of Santa Claus, and reindeer on the rooftops, always rooftops with the high, imaginative chimneys a young child draws with his own free abandon.
Thinking of the chains brought another smile to Miss Brown’s face – the day she looked up from hearing group two read, and saw Susan Beeley, a small elflike child taut with anger and humiliation, standing over Peter Fromm, the biggest boy in the room. Susan had just slapped him hard on the cheek. Peter stared at her with guilt and surprise and a bright pink spot written on his face.
“I couldn’t help it, Miss Brown. I just couldn’t help it. He broke my paper chain and I’d worked so hard on it,” cried Susan.
The whole class could see the bright evidence of Peter’s crime still dangling from his clenched fist.
He looked down at his seat work a moment and then suddenly he was saying, and with true repentance, “I’m sorry, Susan, I’ll give you my paper, the red and the green both. Here …” And he pushed his own share of the colored squares not yet cut toward Susan, who sat down and grimly began again.
There are priceless gems along the way of a teacher’s day, Miss Brown thought, as she turned from the sandbox to watch the sun sink into the lavender of winter twilight. For eleven years she had taught in this same room. It had become a part of her. She loved the wide west windows that looked across weaving fields into the flaming winter sunsets. She loved the warped window sills, with their rows of potted plants in fluted crepe-paper covering, and the long blackboards with erasers and chalk neatly spaced along the troughs, and the gay and newsy bulletin board. There was a rough place on the east blackboard so she kept it covered with the monthly calendar, designed and painted by the children.
Thinking of the calendar brought her mind back to Joe Grandon. It had been his turn to design the December calendar. Miss Brown had purposely seen to that. Her face clouded now as she thought on the ways of saving Joe from the scathing jibes of other children. How is it, she found herself wondering, that children are so loving and so cruel? It would be part of their long growing up to learn to drop this cruelty in favor of kindness and understanding.
She had tried first to block the taunts meant for Joe by approaching Peter and Billy, who most frequently headed the “Peer group” in the room. They were housekeepers during an early week in September, an, while they were vigorously dusting the books and banging them into their places on the corner bookshelves, she had spoken matter-of-factly.
“I couldn’t help noticing,” she said, “that Joe wasn’t playing in the ball game at recess time this morning.”
“Um-mm,” muttered Billy.
But, Peter, being the open one, immediately blurted out, “Nope. He’s part Injun. Besides he don’t know how to play ball.”
Miss Brown flushed with quick anger, but minded her words, “No one knows how if he doesn’t get a chance to play.”
The boys had moved over to the windows now and were busy pouring water in the plant pots along the sill. Billy set his watering can down and observed casually, “He might could play with Jake.” Jake was the only full-blood Indian boy in the room.
“Yeah,” agreed Peter readily, “they’d make a good team – good idea.”
Miss Brown saw there was work to be done, and she began by finding ways to interest the class in the Pahute legends of Jake’s people. Thanksgiving Day had been a good time to use Jake in a program depicting the Pilgrims’ first feast day. He wore the native dress of his people and shyly repeated a chant that old Minnie, his grandmother, had taught him.
But Joe’s was a different problem. She had called at his home and found his parents helpful and willing, despite their poverty. The dark eyes of the mother, looking out upon the world with patience and without complaint, told her there would always be an ally in the home for Joe.
Dear, quiet Joe, with his own great dark eyes looking up from the desk in the middle of row four. He would push his grubby little hands through his hair as he struggled to understand the words in his reader, and look up with pleading in his gentle face each time he realized he couldn’t say the word. And, if he got it right, he would look up again with enchanted anticipation for the friendly word he knew she’d say. “That’s good, Joe. You keep trying and I’ll be back to help.” And his face reflected a glowing light rippling from childish curved lips to the roots of his hair, as she smilingly passed on to the next pupil, her heart falling as she sensed how much he needed her to stay. But there were forty others in the room, each with a different need. Shy and fearful to the point of muteness, Joe would shrink back into himself, darting frightened side glances across the aisle, expecting disapproval, but hoping always for acceptance.
The day came for him to choose his helper for the Christmas calendar. Humbly he glanced at Peter, strong and tall, and full of confidence – but he dared not ask Peter. His eyes fell upon Billy. Maybe Billy would work with him. Miss Brown was ready to offer protection if Billy said no – but he said, “Sure.” And again there was the momentary light of pure joy rippling up in Joe’s face, for he was now one of the class.
The next morning Joe had brought many things to choose from, worked out with the help of his mother the night before. Mrs. Grandon was an artist in many ways, and Joe came bearing a lovely figure of the Christ Child in his mother’s arms, and many shepherds to kneel outside the stable which he and Billy would draw, and a glorious shining star that his mother had helped him make from scraps of tinfoil. It was all for the precious calendar. And he brought it with happiness on his countenance, and a feeling of belongingness singing in his heart. Billy, falling in with the spirit of Joe, worked hard, measuring and drawing and helping to mount the lovely Christmas figures.
Miss Brown turned back to the room and noticed how the last rays of the sun lingered on the star. It gave her an idea. She would make a halo for the Christ Child’s head, and one for the Mother Mary, too. It would please Joe tomorrow when he saw what she had done.
* * * *
The children came in at one o’clock, all eager with anticipation. The girls wore their best dresses, and the boys had clean shirts and slicked-up hair. They were going to sing together in the hall – all the grades together, before they distributed their class gifts. Miss Brown struck a chord on the piano, and they began rehearsing. It lifts the heart to hear them, she thought, and pondered over the grace that little children find under the guardian eyes of heaven at Christmas time.
The bell rang to call the school to assembly in the hall. Solemnly the children took their places before the towering Christmas tree, which bedecked the front entrance. The smaller children settled first and turned to watch the upper grades come down the steps and rustle into their places on the long stairs flanking each end of the hall. Three boys from the sixth grade stood at the top of the stairs and lifted their trumpets to play the strains of “Deck the Halls,” which was the signal to come to order for the caroling.
Miss Smith, the music teacher, raised her hand to give the second signal, and the young voices rose in high, silvery tones, the pure cadence of their blithe songs swelling, advancing, receding into the unchecked joy of the Christmas spirit.
“Up on the Housetop,”they sang –and”Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” and then the tender songs, “O, Little town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,”and “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.” Then, finishing with the loving words of Longfellow’s benediction, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,: they turned back to their rooms softly singing the last verse:
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,.
Of peace on earth, good will toward men.
They had behaved like angels all during the singing, and now Miss Brown smiled upon them at their neat desks, sitting in stiff and unaccustomed politeness under the magic of their own goodness. Christmas was good for them –very good. The giving and the singing together, and now the waiting for what came from the Christmas tree. Some of the boys were self-consciously nudging each other and smirking a little. The girls, with hands neatly folded on top of their desks, looked upon these disturbers of the spirit with adult sternness in their dark glances and pursed mouths.
Miss Brown looked down at Joe, who sat proud and still, glancing now at the bespangled tree and now at his beloved calendar. John and Mary Beth were to be messengers to carry the gifts which each child had brought for the name-drawing in the room. Miss Brown began taking the gaily-wrapped parcels down from the tree, and a gradual murmur of pleasure broke into gleeful outbursts as the children unwrapped gay and funny things and shared them with their classmates. She passed the cookies and apples donated by the mothers, and the children were soon gathering their possessions together ready for the long winter holiday.
Back at her desk, she looked down upon a stack of beribboned gifts meant for herself. Their gifts always embarrassed Miss Brown. She loved them, but she felt so sorry about the youngsters who could not bring something for teacher. The deepest wish she could have was to make each child feel his own excellence and worth in his world.
They were filing out of the room now. “Goodbye, Miss Brown. Merry Christmas, Miss Brown. See you after holidays. Goodbye.”
The room was filling with quiet after the festivities. A few stragglers were still fumbling with their wraps and galoshes in the hall. Miss Brown sat down at her desk and stared at the packages for herself. She knew there would be many handkerchiefs, which she always loved, and some sweet-smelling soap from Phyllis and Jean – they had told her ahead of time – and some bath salts from Virginia. All of it was too much to give, but she appreciated the thoughts behind the giving. And she must get busy now for there was much to be done before she took the night bus hone.
Light footsteps caught her attention. Joe was crossing the room. His great velvet eyes were fastened upon her face, and his breath came in quick little gasps as he marched steadily toward her.
“Miss Brown – Miss Brown,” he said coming up to the desk, “here is something for you. I brought this – for you.” And he thrust out his tightly closed fist and opened it to display two shining copper pennies – warm from the sweat of his hand. He turned them over and laid them on her desk.
“Why, Joe.” She looked into his proud young face. “Thank you – thank you very much for thinking of me, Joe.” And she moved the pennies over with the rest of the gifts. Joe still lingered. His eyes were still fastened upon hers and he swallowed quickly against the revelation of some other pent-up excitement. Miss Brown knew the strange wonder of the grownup before the guileless innocence of the child.
“Are you going to have a happy Christmas at your house, Joe?”
He nodded. “The best one. My mother says it’s the very best one. Look …” and again he was thrusting something toward her. A crumpled slip of paper. A grocery list from the corner store. “The strike’s off at the mines and my daddy bought all this list of groceries last night with money. He didn’t have to charge a thing. He paid for all of these. My mother says it’ll be the best Christmas we’ve ever had.”
He folded the paper up again and pushed it deep into his pocket. “I have to take it back to mother. I only just borrowed it for you to see a minute.”
“Thank you, Joe. You take it back safely to mother. I’m very happy for all of you.”
There was Yuletide gladness still echoing from the school halls, but the greatest gladness rang in Joe’s soft voice. “Well, Merry Christmas, Miss Brown, and good night.”
“Goodnight, Joe.” And Miss Brown put two shining copper pennies away in her heart forever.