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Christmas, Room 26

December 18, 2014

The Christmas season is one like no other. There is an infectious good spirit in the air, and for kids, an atmosphere of anticipation that is palpable. It is also a time of year steeped in tradition, and during my twenty-five years in Room 26, I came to institute several of my own.

That was the English classroom in which the eighth graders of Pierrepont School spent their agonizing days waiting for Christmas to arrive. Always a time of considerable rambunctiousness and lack of concentration, I thought about what lessons I could teach knowing full well that the battle for their attention would be fierce. I wanted something that would capture the humanity embodied in the Christmas season regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or cultural background while still containing educational value.

At first I decided upon a story that happened to be in the literature anthology we used. “A Christmas Memory,” wonderfully seasonal, touching, and well-written, had all the qualities I wanted. The author happened to be Truman Capote, whom I knew only from In Cold Blood, a work most definitely not seasonal. I found out that this was the story of an episode from his own childhood, a time when his parents had left him to live in Alabama with strictly religious and somewhat cold-hearted relatives. The one exception was an elderly cousin, a woman who is written about with such tenderness even though we never even learn her name. Capote introduces her to the reader in simple but beautiful description (the point of the lesson, as far as the anthology was concerned):

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Capote proceeds to tell how they went about making those fruitcakes, an annual enterprise that took quite a bit of time and effort, as well as their preparations for Christmas. During the many small adventures they encountered along the way, we come to know the heart and soul of this cousin well. On the surface this may sound torpid, but it is anything but. Such pure and simple beauty shines through both the words and the people who inhabit them. The relationship between Buddy and his friend resonates strongly for anyone who has had this kind of intimate connection with someone else, and I still remember passages from this story — especially the heartbreaking closing one —  to this day.

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Several years later, I discovered quite by accident another story that I knew I just had to use with my classes. We spent Christmases with my wife’s family, and while we were at my sister-in-law’s house, she brought out a book of Christmas stories with the idea that somebody should read one to enhance the Yuletide spirit. However, these stories from a collection entitled Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant were not the traditional ones I had expected. I thumbed through it and saw a title which drew me, “All the Stars in the Sky.” Since no one else had volunteered, I began to read aloud.

It was the story of Mae, a homeless woman and her three dogs (sadly only one of whom had a name), who had been on the street for so many years she no longer remembered her past. That included Christmas. Feeling poorly and in search of food, she stumbles into the unlocked door of a library closed for the night.

After finding food for herself and the dogs, she comes upon a Christmas display. She sits on the floor in the liquid light of a fish tank and sees a basket of books. She begins to look at them, first one with pictures about a snowman who comes to life and flies off with a boy, and then another:

“It has words, so Mae nearly puts it back down, but the pictures of the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky hold her and Mae turns the pages slowly, curled into her cushion, and breathes deep and quiet, and looks.

Mae looks at every book in the basket while her dogs sleep. Every Christmas book in the basket.

Then she lays her head against Marty and she sleeps too.”

Some small ember still alive deep within Mae, some distant memory of her own childhood and Christmases past, is stirred even if Mae is not conscious of it. She leaves the library in the morning:

“Mae walks with her dogs, her stomach full, not sick anymore, and a sign in a store window says ‘Merry Christmas!’ but Mae sees only a snowman flying and a woman and a baby and stars and stars and stars.”

It brought me to tears as I read, voice quavering with sobs, startling my wife and sister-in-law, some deep well of emotion within me tapped by this story. I’m not sure why this was so. It has the same effect on me to this day.

When my students read it, I could see many of them felt the same way. I always asked them to answer a question about whether or not this story should be read by kids. A few of them said no because of its sadness, but the majority said yes. They believed it served as a reminder to those of us who have families and a warm home and people who care about us not to take those things for granted. That recognition alone made this lesson worthwhile.

One last addition was made to my December repertoire that became a real favorite both for the students and me: A Christmas Story. For years during breaks in our holiday dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I had watched together with my young niece and nephew Jean Shepherd’s whimsical tale of childhood desire for the perfect gift. When I came into possession of a VCR copy, I immediately installed it as a permanent part of my pre-Christmas lesson plans.

It was perfect. It had the timeless humor of the misadventures of a kid growing up: struggles with the neighborhood bully, attempted manipulation of parents and teachers, stupid acts spurred on by the dares of a friend, and navigating the oddities of the various personalities surrounding us as we grow up. But there was also great tenderness between the very people who sometimes experienced a clash of wills, all of this in the delightful atmosphere of Christmastime in small town America.

My only worry was that my students would have already seen it. This turned out not to be the case. Some students were totally unfamiliar with it. Others had seen bits and pieces but never the entire thing. Those that had seen it in its entirety were enthusiastic about seeing it again. I understand why; I must have watched this gem scores of times and have never tired of it. Each Christmas I along with my now-grown niece and nephew laugh anew at so many of the unforgettable scenes: Ralphie’s bunny pajama present from his aunt, his father’s “major award” leg lamp with fishnet stockings, Ralphie’s first big curse in front of his father, Flick’s triple-dog-dare-caused tongue stuck to the flagpole, the dinner at the Chinese restaurant. Each vignette becomes a reference point to episodes in our own lives as we watch the trials and tribulations of Ralphie in his quest for that Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. In spite of the time period of the story, so much has remained the same about childhood Christmases, and this story manages to capture it.

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I often wonder if my students remember any of these stories from back then, or if encountered again now do they recall their experience with them in my class. Even though I’m no longer in that room at this time of year, I still think back to those days sharing both the sorrow and laughter of Buddy and Mae and Ralphie in the spirit of the season, and at least for me, these stories we savored together are forever part of the fabric of my own Christmas memories.

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. They remember…even those who don’t remember the room number remember these episodes



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