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The True Spirit of Christmas

I wanted my student Mary Beth to have a Christmas to remember…

Christmas Presenets
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
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I was straightening up my classroom after school the day before Christmas break. Quiet at last, I thought as I removed a strand of red garland from the border of the blackboard. My seventh graders at Old High Middle School in Bentonville, Arkansas, had left for their holiday. A few more chores and I would be gone too, driving to Texas the next morning with my 12-year-old daughter, Shellie, to visit my parents.

I heard a rustling at the door. It was one of my students. “Hi, Mary Beth.* Forget something?”

“No,” she answered, then blurted out, “My foster family is going away for the holidays. They’re really nice and everything, but I’d rather be with you and Shellie. Can I?”

I liked Mary Beth a lot. She and Shellie were classmates and close friends. During the last few years Mary Beth had been shunted from one foster home to another. I wanted to help, but I wondered how I could make all the last-minute arrangements in time. One glance at Mary Beth’s earnest expression and I caved in. “Sure. We’d love to have you.”

At home later I called and got the okay from her foster family and the courts, then grabbed my coat and rushed downtown. If Mary Beth was coming with us, I wanted it to be a special holiday for her. Getting into the spirit, I dashed through store after store, buying perfume, clothes, CDs and jewelry for both girls. By nightfall I had spent my last dime. I lugged home shopping bags filled to bursting. This would be a Christmas to remember!

The next day, we climbed into our car and started the first leg of our trip, talking and laughing nonstop as the miles sped by. We looked at license plates, played 20 Questions and traded jokes. I’d been a single parent for so long—just Shellie and me—that it seemed like a party to have a third with us. As dusk fell we pulled off the highway in McAlester, Oklahoma, and checked into a motel.

The girls and I lugged our suitcases and duffel bags to the room. I returned to the parking lot to check on the car. In the backseat lay our presents, bundled in big plastic bags. I hesitated for a moment, then noticed presents in the other cars in the lot. They’ll be okay, I thought. After making sure the car doors were locked I returned to the motel room.

Before breakfast the next morning Mary Beth went out to the car. A few seconds later she burst into the room. “Our presents are gone!” she yelled. “Someone stole them!”

I ran outside and stared at the jimmied lock and the empty backseat. There goes Christmas, I thought. I called 911 and within minutes a patrol car whizzed into the parking lot. “Okay, ma’am, tell me exactly what’s missing,” the officer said briskly. He was all business. To him this was just another petty crime.

“Everything…all our gifts.”

Officer Stites shook his head. “I’ll need you to describe each stolen item exactly,” he said. “Why don’t you step into the patrol car? You can describe them while I fill out the paperwork.”

My heart sank as the gifts on my Christmas list were transferred to a crime report. I gave a rundown of the items: one gold horse charm for Shellie, two bottles of perfume, two pairs of jeans, two sweaters, one warm-up suit, one silk blouse, and a gold cross necklace for Mary Beth. “I feel really bad for Mary Beth,” I said, explaining her situation. “I wanted to make this year special.”

“I understand,” he said. And then he had me repeat my descriptions of the gifts, which only made me feel worse. Finally, he flipped his notebook shut. “Well, ma’am,” he said, “chances are you won’t get any of your stuff back. But we’ll file this report and hope for the best.”

“Thank you, Officer.”

Back on the road with the girls I tried to be as cheerful as I could. But I felt like crying. This sure isn’t the Christmas I had in mind, I thought. The closer we got to Texas, the more down I got. After a while the girls resumed their chatter, but I found it hard to join in. I wanted to give them the best. What will they have to remember now?

As I listened to the girls talk and tease, making the most of a long, boring ride, a thought slowly penetrated my gloom: They’ll have other memories too. Our road trip; the games we’d played; the warm welcome I knew we’d receive at my parents’  house. I had tried to make a perfect Christmas with material gifts. But they were only a facet of the holiday. There was friendship, laughter and love, which we already had in abundance.

By the time we pulled into my parents’ driveway I was feeling a whole lot better. My mom was waving from the curb.

“I just got a call!” she cried. “An Officer Stites in Oklahoma.”

“What?” I asked.

“He wanted you to know: Christmas is on the way!”

The next day Federal Express delivered a huge box filled with wrapped presents. Officer Stites had taken up a collection at the police department and from local merchants, and then had gone on his own shopping spree. On Christmas morning the girls eagerly tore open the packages to find blouses, blue jeans and warm-up suits in the right sizes, the right colors. There was even a miniature horse charm for Shellie and a gold cross for Mary Beth.

So now when I think of Christmas I remember what’s really important: friendship, laughter, songs, love…and the kindness people can show to traveling strangers.

*Name has been changed

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