It was definitely going to be the weirdest Christmas ever. I was seventeen, and this should have been my last Christmas as a kid, my last chance to ask for video games without worrying about being responsible, but it wasn’t.
Okay, backing up a little. So I was seventeen and a senior. Cool, right? Well, no. Actually, to be totally honest, and I’ve promised myself a million times I would be, I was a total dweeb, a nerd, a nobody. Before you roll your eyes and think I’m exaggerating, let’s just get it straight that I passed the AP calculus test as a sophomore. I was also the school web programmer for the third year in a row, and I was in the running for the president’s scholarship at BYU. Yep, no doubt about it: total geek.
All right, but those smarts came in handy later (or will whenever I get out of grad school—hey, doctorates take a while, okay?). The point is, it wasn’t just my brainiac tendencies that made me by all high school coolness meters a total loser; there was also my family situation. See, money was pretty tight, and that president’s scholarship was going to be a literal Godsend to our family later that school year.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Christmas. So the other major thing that was marking me as a nobody and far from a normal seventeen-year-old kid was that I had a job and Dad didn’t.
It wasn’t like I was supporting the family or anything—there’s no way I was capable of that—it’s just that at the same time as my summer job asked me to stay on to work Saturdays during the school year, Dad got laid off. Yeah, that was as awkward of a dinner table conversation as you can imagine.
We pushed through it though. Dad kept going to alumni gatherings and networking meetings, and I kept going to work on Saturdays. But I did stop asking Mom and Dad to buy me stuff—clothes, books, fast food, and, of course, video games—because I knew it would be too much for them. Sure, I appreciated my newfound financial independence, but a lot of times I just wished I could be a normal kid wearing sweet brand-name clothing that my parents bought me and driving some rich aunt’s cast-off Corolla. That Christmas was one of those times that I was wishing for the impossible. Like major.
I didn’t mention it before to try to spread out the account of my seventeen-year-old overwhelming dorkiness, but I’ve got to fess up sometime so I can get to the real story. Where was my fancy summer/weekend teen employment? Deseret Industries. Total uncool. Not just retail, but thrift retail. The lowest of the low. (Correction: washing dishes at the Chinese take-out down the street the summer before was the lowest of the low. But DI was still pretty far down the totem pole, you have to admit.)
All right, so that’s a perfect portrait of me that Christmas: total geek meets (almost) lamest job ever. But at the time, I didn’t complain. How could I whine about anything when I had a job and Dad didn’t? But I still felt pretty bummed that I wasn’t making Christmas lists on my phone between classes to text to all my relatives. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t even going to have a Christmas at all.
So that’s about how I was feeling the Saturday before Christmas, the first day of Christmas “break” from school that wouldn’t be a break at all for me. All retail is insane leading up to Christmas and even crazier afterward, and good old DI is not an exception. As I swept up a beanbag spill in aisle 17 that Saturday, I kept thinking how I would never have a real, beat-the-latest-RPG chillaxed Christmas ever again. Instead I was working overtime both weeks of the “break” and trying to figure out how to smuggle my extra pay into Mom’s purse or pay for as many groceries as I could without her, and especially Dad, knowing.
About midway through these complicated thoughts was when I met Harold.
I know that’s usually the name of someone’s great-great-grandfather, but Harold was a kid, just like me. Actually, he was a lot different than me. He was at least ten years older but acted about ten years younger. I found out much later that Harold was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, meaning his birth mother drank before he was born which damaged his brain. His parents adopted him as a days-old infant, fully knowing about the challenges that he would face in his life, and are some of the best people I have ever met. But I didn’t know any of that when my manager, Steve, appeared with Harold in tow in aisle 17 the Saturday before Christmas.
I had worked with a lot of people with special needs at DI. “Vocational rehabilitation” was a main mission of the store, and it included all sorts—people of all ages with disabilities, others overcoming addiction and putting their life back together, unskilled workers needing a leg-up, and high school students, like me, looking for a summer/weekend job. But meeting Harold was the first time I was asked to train a coworker—any coworker, let alone one with special needs.
“Just show him the ropes,” Steve smiled, “and tell me later how he does, k? When you’re done with this spill, start with sorting books. I think he’d like that.”
All I could do was nod as Steve left Harold with me—me, a scrawny, nerdy, high-school kid who didn’t know anything about anything when it came to people with disabilities like Harold. Was the holiday rush addling Steve that much?
“Well, come on, buddy, let’s get started,” I said. It was strange to talk as if I was working with Mom’s Primary class when I was looking at a dude I knew was older and even bigger than me. But Harold smiled when I said “buddy” and simply said, “Yeah!”
It took me a day and a half to even start to figure Harold out. He would work and work, pulling books and checking tags as if nothing would stop him, and then he’d suddenly collapse like he’d just run a marathon. I kept trying to get him to pace himself, but he was too anxious to please me. Eventually, we developed a game between the two of us that involved lots of talking and me slowing down to work at Harold’s ability level so he wouldn’t feel bad, stress out, and overdo it. Luckily, whenever Steve came around to check on whatever we were doing—sorting donations, hanging up clothes, whatever—he seemed really pleased that things were working out with training Harold, even if I wasn’t working as fast as usual.
Those last few long days before Christmas, working before the store opened and after it closed, passed a lot most quickly than I had imagined. Before I knew it, it was December 23rd, and Harold and I were real buds. The guy had the funniest sense of humor. He’d just point out the littlest thing in some picture somewhere and crack up so much that it was impossible to keep from cracking a smile. The customers felt the same, too. It was like a burst of goodwill and joy right by my side throughout Harold’s part-time hours every day.
The 23rd was DI’s “Christmas Eve” because we were closing that night until the 26th. It wasn’t going to be much of a break, but I was looking forward to those two days like they were the only vacation I was going to get that December because, besides Sundays, they were. I was pretty exhausted from working such long hours, too. I also knew that those two days would only be a small reprieve before the post-holiday craziness that would soon be upon us. This was why I was pretty sure that Steve was the only person in the universe that could have been so optimistic to think that any of us would want to “spread holiday cheer” by caroling outside the store, in the cold, for the last two hours of our Christmas sale. I don’t know how it was possible for Steve to think it up—or convince us to do it—but he did.
The worst thing about working at DI was avoiding anybody I knew. Well, okay, it actually wasn’t the hardest thing in my life at the time. Really, no teenager wants to be seen in DI, right? Working there, shopping there, or your mom shopping there were all pretty equal on the uncool scale. But I had to be there every day. I was over it—mostly—and I generally found that anyone I knew from school was as eager to avoid eye contact as I was whenever I ducked down a different aisle to avoid them. But singing Christmas carols out in front of the store? That was a totally different story. I might as well hold up a flashing “loser” sign. What in the heck was Steve thinking?
Well, he was thinking of dressing up like Santa Claus and giving out free miniature candy canes while we all sang Christmas carols, apparently.
So I was in the emergency staff meeting in the break room half an hour before the festivities were to begin. Harold was with me, of course, and Launa, the moody cashier with the nose ring, was in charge. Who knew that she could sing? And who knew that I could, for that matter?
“So thanks to Steve we’re all here, right?” Launa looked down at a clipboard and read off names. Seriously? This was like roll call in kindergarten. My life was just getting worse and worse. Why did I have to be tortured so bad before I could have my two flippin’ days of hard-earned vacation?
“Okay, Launa, Jeff, Mary, Charlie, Jake, and,” Launa looked up quickly, “Harold?”
“Here!” Harold said, much too loudly, jumping to his feet, his hand shot straight up in the air. I flashed him a big smile that said, “Way to go, buddy,” but Shauna didn’t look very pleased.
“Uh, Jake,” she said to me. “Could you come here for a minute?” Discretion was obviously not the girl’s forte. She pulled me into the corner, which in that tiny staffroom was only a few yards away from everyone else, and hastily hissed, “What was Steve thinking? Harold can’t sing. This is going to be awful. Oh, I hate my life!” She pressed her hand to her forehead, and I seriously wondered if she was going to have a panic attack. I didn’t know why this caroling thing was such a big deal. Okay, so we all detested the idea, but why was Launa so incredibly upset?
“Hey, it’s cool, right?” I said. “He’ll just stand in the back and wave at people and stuff. That’s okay, right?”
“It’s okay in the store,” Launa said, “but not out there in front of anyone who drives by–”
And at that brilliant moment, Harold chose to break out into an extremely loud and nearly unintelligible rendition of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
“Bah!” was all Launa said in exasperation before she started pacing.
“Hey, buddy, let’s hold it for now, k?” I said gently to Harold. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I was seriously starting to worry that Launa was going to have a total freak-out, and I had no idea how to deal with that.
“Yeah,” Launa stopped pacing and put on a huge and very fake smile. “Do you know what we need, Harold?” She was talking to him like he was less than two. I didn’t really understand why, but I felt a touch of anger bubble up in my chest. He could hear, and he could talk, didn’t she know? Why was she acting so unintelligent—or like Harold was?
“What?” Harold asked. He always spoke loud, but I knew he could hear everything just the same. So his words came out funny—kind of slurred—so what? We still had tons of conversations together. Why was Launa acting like he could do less than he could?
“We need someone to wave while we sing, like this.” Her wave was a gross exaggeration. No one put their whole body into an arm sway like that. Was she trying to be ridiculous?
“But, I sing,” Harold said slowly.
“Oh, but I really need someone to wave,” Launa’s voice was like artificial sweetener. “Can’t you do that for me?”
“Jay,” Harold turned to me. I never let anyone call me that before, but I didn’t mind that Harold did. “Do I get to sing?”
I looked at Harold’s confused face, then at Launa’s. She was standing behind him, shaking her head vigorously. How obtuse did she think we all were? I think that anger inside popped a steam hole because I turned back to Harold and said, “Yeah, dude, we really need you to sing, if you’ll do it.”
“Yeah!” Harold did a fist pump, I’d spent all week teaching him that.
Launa stalked from the room with a, “Fine, you guys do it then.” I had called her the moody cashier for a reason.
Thus began the first supervisor project of my life. I’d never been in charge of anything, except teaching Harold how to sort books and stuff, before, but after the drama with Launa, everyone—Jeff, Mary, Charlie, and Harold—suddenly looked at me like I was in charge. We came up with a plan, practiced a few tunes, and everyone seemed to like it. The most amazing thing was that I wasn’t worrying about singing in front of the store or Christmas in general anymore. I was only thinking about making sure that Harold had a good time. Something that I knew the dude really deserved.
So, two hours before closing, we went out and started “the plan.” It went like this: Harold, the unpredictable human Christmas jukebox, would start on a carol and we’d all join in like it was the best idea ever, which, of course, it really was. That night was probably my one and only stint in show business, but I can honestly say that the audience loved it. My buddy Harold was the cheeriest, happiest caroler you’ve ever seen, and no one passing by could do anything but join in. Brotherhood and goodwill all around, my friend.
The best moment was right in the middle of “All I Want for Christmas”—a brilliant lisp performed by Harold, our star—when he yelled and ran out into the crowd like the real Santa Claus had shown up in place of Steve and his shabby, donated suit. When Harold reappeared, he was pulling a couple by their arms toward me, and the smiles jumping off their faces told me at once that they were Harold’s parents.
“We’ve heard so much about you, Jake,” Mr. Donaldson said. “We can’t thank you enough for helping Harold be successful here.”
Mrs. Donaldson only nodded as she blinked back a precarious flood of tears.
Successful? It wasn’t really a word that I had thought about much. Usually I associated my job at DI with loserness, not success. But lately, as I thought about it, I had been linking my job with thoughts of friendship, service, and love. All those thoughts were jumbled in my mind as I stood there looking at the Donaldsons, Harold’s selfless and caring parents, but with the noise of the shoppers all around, how could I put what I felt into words?
“Come on, Harold,” I finally said, clapping my buddy on the back, “we’ve got just ten more minutes. Think you have it in you?”
Harold immediately returned to his place next to Mary and Charlie and started up the liveliest version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” that I’ve ever heard. The Donaldsons laughed—and probably cried too—and joined right in, letting Harold and me finish up our last few minutes on the clock before DI closed for Christmas.
You probably want to know that Launa never apologized to me about dissing Harold, but she was incredibly kind to him for the few months remaining in her “vocational rehabilitation,” and she even learned to cut out the patronizing and treat the kid like an equal. I heard from Mary that when she left DI Launa had some pretty serious ambitions of going into special education when she started school again at the local college.
Harold became my best friend. It was hard the next fall when I moved away from home and DI to go to BYU that I couldn’t see him every day, but we’ve kept in touch for a lot of years, and whenever I’m in the neighborhood I take him out on the town—for a milkshake. The Donaldsons are still always trying to thank me for “all I’ve done for Harold,” but I can’t help them understand that it’s nothing compared to what he did for me. I was a troubled, burdened, and lonely teenager that Christmas, but the opportunity to forget about myself to help Harold changed my life and taught me what the spirit of Christmas—and the spirit of Christ—really is.
It wasn’t until my clock radio woke me up on Christmas Eve that year that I realized that Harold had omitted a very important Christmas carol from our repertoire the night before, the one the radio was playing that made me think of how I had heard Harold, a real-live angel, sing.