3rd grade was a big year for me. 3rd grade was the year I got glasses. It was the first year I started to understand loss and grief because my teacher, Mrs. Smith, lost her husband while being our teacher. It was one of the first years of my life where I no longer had the spotlight to myself because I had a baby brother. I was in dance class and Girl Scouts. My parents took good care of me. I had it good.
At Christmas time in 3rd grade my teacher had a Christmas party and the kids in the class were told to bring in a present for a game we were going to play. Girls brought in a girl present and boys, a boy present. We all sat in two circles, one for boys and one for girls, and eagerly passed our gifts around while the teacher read us a story, passing gifts to our neighboring classmate at certain story prompts. At the end of the story whatever gift you ended up with was the one you went home with. At the end of the story I had ended up with Natasha’s gift.
Looking back now as an adult who spent many years working in enrichment programs in low income school districts, I can only imagine what kind of home Natasha came from. I remember her sort of brown haired bowl cut and pale skin. She was taller than me, but most kids were. My best guess through a fuzzy memory, is that she likely came from a home with no structure. No parents at home, and possibly parents who had some type of addiction or just didn’t care to be parents. Me, being in my early years of life, had no idea what types of different families we came from. My mom, always being caring for others around her, reminds me of a time she gifted Natasha an outfit for her birthday, realizing it may have been the only gift she got. She came to school in it the next day. Natasha definitely did not come from the warm and fuzzy life that I did.
Upon watching the other kids open their Christmas gifts, presumably Polly Pockets, coloring sets and Barbies, I opened my package to find a set of dirty, smelly Christmas ornaments. One in particular was a small knit, red, green and white ornament in the shape of a stocking. My mom retells the story of me thanking my fellow classmate in a cheerful “thank you!” as though I had gotten something equally as delightful that the other kids got. In the car, my mom always retells the story, that I had a very opposite response.
Upon getting into my moms Blue Ford Taurus station wagon, I had a meltdown of all meltdowns you would expect any 9 year old to have when faced with that situation. Tears, and feelings of how unfair it was to see other kids and their Christmas delights. I wanted to throw everything away and pretend it never happened.
My mom, always (and still is) being a gentle heart reminded me that come Christmas morning, I will have presents from friends, family, neighbors. I will be flooded with love and around those who love me. She reminded me that this young girl who brought me a gift that possibly came from her own tree, or maybe her parents took her to the thrift store as an afterthought, was certainly not going to have the same holiday as me. She was proud of me for my kind face and holding it together in that classroom, but also took it as a teaching moment to me to remind me to reflect on what I have, and be gracious to others. I believe the story goes, that after her humbling lesson, I requested to go purchase gifts for my classmate who I then realized may have received her only gift for the holiday season in that 3rd grade classroom.
It has been over two decades since that moment happened and my mom washed that little stocking ornament and hung it on the tree every year to remind me of that moment in my life. I am humbled and reminded of it every year when I see it.
In my adult years I’ve seen it all first hand while my years in direct service organizations. Families asking where they can get gifts, a holiday hot meal, or enough food to last through Winter Break since school is out and their child won’t get meals at school. Every year as I sit down with my family at the holidays and look at my piles of presents and my feast in abundance, I am grateful for what I have and grateful for what I can give to others, both close to me, or as giving back to my own community through volunteer or donations.
I hadn’t ever shared that story with anyone, but this holiday season I am humbly reminded to practice my gratitude, celebrate and love others, and to count my blessings.
To all of you this holiday season, I wish you the merriest and brightest and all the love and cheer I can spread.