by Jennifer Ricks
Two hundred and forty-three glass ornaments of all colors and sizes. Some were shiny Christmas red and gold. Some were frosted with sparkling paint. A few were clear with dainty pictures or patterns inside. Rich plums, crisp ice blues, even a few orange and yellow, glowing and blinking on the Christmas tree.
It was a fetish, Kayley knew that well enough. Hadn’t her mother complained about it enough over the years? Even in high school Kayley couldn’t resist picking up a box of shimmering orbs from the clearance aisle of the department store.
Now there were two hundred and forty-three, but Kayley also had a townhouse of her own and a Christmas tree of her own, so Mom couldn’t complain about storage boxes anymore. Kayley sat back on her heels to see the effect of her last sprig of tinsel. The tree looked just perfect.
Christmas was Kayley’s favorite time of year. It meant a two-week vacation. It meant crunchy snow and melted marshmallows in warm cups of rich cocoa. It meant a tangible excitement in her second-grade classroom that drove her crazy and giddy all at the same time. It meant talking of Santa Claus and wearing red and listening to old-time holiday favorites on the radio. It meant enough of a holiday—a whole season in fact—that it filled up her time and she didn’t have to worry about anything else in her life, or anything else that her life lacked.
The Monday of the last week of school, Kayley had started easing into what she liked to call “Holiday Week.” The kids were too excited for vacation to focus for the last five days, and Kayley was an experienced teacher enough to know when to give up. For the past three years running she had observed Holiday Week. She scoured all her materials and the internet to find enough “review” activities to cover most of the week—review activities that were all about Christmas: worksheets with trees and holly and snowmen, history excerpts of events that happened in December, and even science demonstrations about the water cycle and snow. The spelling list for the week consisted of evergreen, sleigh, reindeer, tinsel, carol, pumpkin, and (just to be more culturally universal) dreidle.
The week had gone as Kayley had planned: borderline mayhem the entire time. No one wanted to stay in their seats. Everyone wanted to compare Christmas lists. Slowly crude versions of the most popular Christmas songs spread around the school to be snickered at in corners. And someone was told that Santa Claus wasn’t real.
This year it happened to a little towheaded boy named Jackson. When she caught a glimpse of his tear-stained face after recess, Kayley couldn’t believe that she hadn’t seen it coming. Jackson was one of those rare sensitive second-grade boys. He liked to draw more than tell jokes or play kickball. He didn’t talk to his neighbor during lessons. He hardly ever raised his hand, but he always focused on everything Kayley said and followed instructions perfectly. It was one of the injustices of education that most of Kayley’s attention went to the rowdy troublemakers while star students like Jackson hardly ever worked with her one-on-one, but that’s how it was.
“Don’t forget your spelling test tomorrow,” Kayley warned just before the bell rang at the end of the day. “It’ll be first thing, so be ready.”
“And then the party?” yelled Howell, who never raised his hand.
“Yes,” Kayley decided to let the hand raising discipline pass just this once, “so don’t forget to bring the snack your mom signed up for.”
The bell rang and the students jumped to their feet. Kayley used the shuffling of twenty-eight pairs of eight-year-old feet as cover to quietly ask Jackson to help her wipe off the board. He jumped out of his seat eagerly and went to his task with a will.
Kayley stood behind watching him for a while. Every truth about Santa Claus case was different. She had seen many in her short lifespan in the second grade. Each one took special care and handling.
“Jackson,” Kayley said decidedly as she took her finger from her lips and moved a step towards the blond boy.
“All done, Miss Kelly!” Jackson said as he finished with a flourish.
“Jackson,” Kayley repeated, “I need someone to do something special for me at the class Christmas party tomorrow.”
“Really?” Jackson’s eyes widened. He was the only eight-year-old in the class who could look as eager as that. “I’ll do it!”
“Well,” Kayley leaned against a desk in the front row and put on a serious face. “I need someone to read a story aloud for part of an activity.”
“Sure thing!” Jackson agreed, nodding vigorously. “I’ll do it.”
Kayley was inwardly relieved. Talking in front of the class was not Jackson’s favorite thing to do, but she had started noticing that this wasn’t because he was afraid, just because sometimes he would rather think about things than talk about them.
“You can practice it at home tonight?” Kayley asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said, “I already have the spelling words memorized, so I don’t have any other homework. And,” Jackson paused for a second, “this isn’t really homework, right, Miss Kelly? I mean, it’s just a favor and all, right?”
“Of course,” Kayley smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of giving a good student like you extra homework.”
Jackson’s shoulders relaxed with relief, and Kayley turned away to hide her broadening smile.
“This is the story,” she walked to her desk and took a sheet of paper from a side drawer.
“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson read from the sheet Kayley had handed him. He looked up at her doubtfully. “I don’t know, Miss Kelly,” Jackson shifted his feet, “Santa Claus and all—it’s just kid’s stuff, right?” The last word of his question hung in the air desperately.
“This,” Kayley said seriously, pointing to the paper, “is a really important part of our Christmas party,” she paused for emphasis. Second-graders were good at picking up on dramatic pauses like that. “Do you think you can do it?” she asked again.
“If you really need me,” Jackson beamed. He unzipped his backpack and placed the paper carefully in his folder.
“And remember,” Kayley called as Jackson tromped out of the classroom, “it’s a favor, not homework!”
Keeping with tradition, Kayley spent that evening in the most relaxed way possible, which this year happened to correspond with the TV rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Occasionally she smiled at the thought of all her students’ parents rushing around at the grocery stores to pick up the packages of cookies they forgot to bake for the party or hot-gluing pom-poms to popsicle sticks to set up for the Rudolph craft. Those were things Kayley had learned parents are good at—and fully capable of stressing over—while she could take the night off because no homework was due the next day, or the next two weeks.
As for the solitude of her situation—in her own living room, on her own couch, eating her own bowl of popcorn—that was what she was especially savoring on the last day of school eve. She would miss her students during the vacation a little, but not until after the first week, and with all the family events crammed into the holidays, she knew from experience that she would have few, if any, leisurely nights like this until New Year’s was over. And the thought of her mother commenting on why Kayley couldn’t find a nice man like George Bailey prompted her to dig out another handful of popcorn and continue savoring the evening alone.
The room moms came early to school the next day to set up the classroom for the party. Every year was the same. The construction paper garlands and decorations that Kayley had taught in art lessons all month were not sufficient. There was always at least a couple interior-decorating intensive moms who would come and make the whole classroom over that morning with trees, garlands, and lights strung everywhere. It was something that Kayley didn’t mind. She had a thing for ornaments, after all, so she could be patient with other people’s holiday obsessions.
By the time the morning bell rang, the classroom looked like it was part of the North Pole display at the mall. Two years ago a dad had even dressed up as Santa Claus and made a guest appearance at the party, but Kayley was grateful that such an elaborate scheme was not in the works this year because what was most on her mind that morning was Jackson and the story she had given him to read.
“Miss Kelly!” he whispered as she crossed by his seat to start class. “I’ve got it learned by heart!” He was grinning like crazy, and Kayley was relieved. His enthusiasm was a good sign. She only hoped it would carry her plan through when Jackson had to stand up for himself in front of the whole class—in front of Howell and the other boys that Kayley was sure were the culprits of Jackson’s tears the day before.
“Welcome to our class Christmas party,” Kayley said when the class went quiet. “Welcome to all the parents who could come. We have a fun day planned with lots of food and activities, so we’ll let Bridger’s mom get us started.”
And that opening speech was pretty much Kayley’s largest task for the day, until it came to Jackson’s story in the afternoon. Like all wizened teachers, Kayley knew that “class party” pretty much meant a day off for the teacher.
All day she wove in and out of rows of desks commenting on the crafts and activities, helping parents open glue sticks, and chatting with the room moms. She was ready with a fresh roll of paper towels from the back of the classroom for the inevitable large spill of punch during snack time, and she was the only one who could thread Janey’s frayed yarn for her stocking craft for the twentieth time. But all of these tasks were easy—a cinch—when compared with teaching the concept of multiplication for the first time, something she tackled every February.
At two o’clock, things were winding down. All the trashcans in the room were filled to the brim with red and green construction paper clippings, punch-stained paper cups, and paper plates sticky with paste or frosting (or maybe both). All the children were squirmy and beaming and wearing glittered homemade hats. All the parents were bleary-eyed and exhausted and looking at Kayley like they couldn’t believe that she spent every day in this classroom with these kids. Everything was just as it should be.
“I want to thank everyone for making our class party such a success,” Kayley smiled, “especially all the parents. We have just one activity left before it’s time to go home. I’ve asked Jackson to read a special Christmas story for us to end our day.”
Kayley nodded at Jackson and he moved to the front of the classroom. His dad was standing at the back of the room, a tall, thin man with glasses. Kayley could never remember if he was an accountant or a stock broker, but he had never come to a class party before and she was so glad he was there today.
“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson began. Kayley could see that his hands were shaking a little, but his voice was firm. “Once upon a time, and a long time ago,” Jackson read slowly and clearly, just as Kayley had taught them all to do when reading in front of the class, “there was a snowy village high on top of a mountain. The village had never seen a car, or a train, or an airplane. They didn’t have cellphones, or computers, or TVs, or anything. But they had big fur coats to keep them warm in winter and a lot of hard work to do every day.
“All except one boy in the village. He was sick and couldn’t walk. Everyone else in the town did so many things—pushing carts, making shoes, baking bread—but the boy couldn’t do anything except lie in bed or sit in a chair and watch out the window.
“At Christmastime, all the children in the village would write down what they wanted for Christmas, roll the paper up in a scroll with a ribbon tied around it, and leave it in the windowsill of their house for—” here Jackson faltered and gulped. Out of the corner of her eye, Kayley saw Howell nudge his neighbor, but Jackson didn’t look at Howell. Instead, he saw his father at the back of the room, took a deep breath, and read on.
“For Santa Claus,” Jackson continued firmly. “And on Christmas Eve this year, Santa Claus would come by each house, read the notes, and leave a gift.”
“This year the little boy who couldn’t walk almost didn’t write a note. Even though he had something very big to wish for—that he could walk again—he didn’t think he deserved a Christmas gift. Everyone else in the village worked so hard, but he couldn’t do anything. Finally, just before he went to bed on Christmas Eve, he thought of what he wanted to write and left his note on the windowsill just like everybody else.”
“The next morning, Christmas morning, was sunny and bright. All the children of the village ran outside, bundled in their soft fur coats, to play with their new toys, all except the little boy who couldn’t walk. On his porch was a note written on the finest paper he had ever seen and in beautiful gold ink. This is what the note said: ‘Thank you for the best Christmas gift ever. Love, Santa Claus.’
“Most people in the village didn’t know what had happened to make the boy that couldn’t walk so happy, but a few had peeked at his note from the night before. ‘Dear Santa Claus,’ he had written, ‘Please, I would love my gift to be that you have a Merry Christmas.’ And those people knew that no one had a greater gift for Christmas than the boy himself because he had given a gift of joy to another.”
The classroom filled with applause and Jackson took a few bows before retreating, flush-faced and beaming, back to his seat.
Kayley shook all the parents’ hands as they left the classroom and wished dozens of students a Merry Christmas in return for their snickered, “See you next year, Miss Kelly!” Twenty minutes after the last mom left with her four boxes of artificial pine boughs, Kayley locked the classroom door and drove away from the school. She would be back later to redecorate the classroom for the new unit in January, but all that could wait at least a week, if not a few days more.
She had not had a chance to speak with Jackson after he performed his part so well, but she had not meant to either. His confidence throughout the reading was enough to show her that the story had worked its magic. It was enough that she had given it to him and that his father was there to hear him read it.
But on Christmas morning, Kayley was pleasantly surprised to find a small, beautifully wrapped gift box on her porch. Tied in the ribbon was a piece of paper rolled into a scroll with this note scrawled in second-grade handwriting: “Dear Miss Kelly, Thank you for letting me read the Christmas story at the party. I asked Santa Claus to give you a Merry Christmas this year because you are the best teacher ever. And then Mom said we could help Santa by leaving you a gift, so here it is. Love, Jackson.”
Kayley felt like her smile was as broad as Jackson’s had been when he finished reading the story as she untied the shiny red ribbon of the box. Inside was ornament number two hundred and forty-four.
Critique: We lose the ornament theme. I’d suggest weaving it in throughout the story, perhaps have her trying to decide which is her favorite. Add a description of the ornament Jackson gives her. The first three paragraphs were a tad slow for me, but then it picked up and kept me involved in the story. A few awkward sentences, but overall very good. Oh, but don’t use the word fetish. Obsession works better.
What I liked best: I could just picture her poor tree groaning under all those ornaments! Great classroom scenes. Great voice.
Publication ready: Yes, with just a bit of editing.