In 1984, I was still a probationary principal at Charles E. Gayarre Elementary School. Although the name of the school was changed to Oretha Castle Haley in 1995, it was in the same Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans’s eighth ward where it had stood since 1896 when it first opened. I was the first African American principal of that school and I wanted to do something to create a legacy.
As the holiday season loomed, I began trying to figure out ways to create a special occasion for the children. Unfortunately, I started thinking about it too late. Everything I wanted to do required more lead time. Specially imprinted items cost too much money and I couldn’t think of what to get that would be suitable for boys and girls of all ages.
Finally, one of our para educators, Curley Ranson (now deceased) found some detailed, die cast pencil sharpeners. The sharpeners came in various styles including miniature cars, globes, sewing machines, radios, and phonographs. They were bronze colored and unique. Although they were very small (about 3 – 4 inches long) they were functional and cute. We had to buy several styles to get enough to distribute to our 700+ student body. It wasn’t a great gift, but I was satisfied that at least we had a token gift for every child.
When the New Year rolled past and we returned to classes, I was discussing how I spent my time off with a group of fourth grade students. We talked about our different family traditions and shared holiday stories. One little boy, whose name or face I can’t remember, was so joyous in his conversation that I remember the sound of his voice. He said it was the best Christmas he’d ever had. They did not have the traditional turkey for dinner, but they did have stewed chicken. He said his mother was the world’s best cook. He didn’t leave town to visit relatives, but his cousins came over to have chocolate cake and ice cream after dinner. He didn’t have a new outfit to wear to church, but he did enjoy the service at midnight Mass.
Listening to him discuss his holiday, minus the trappings we usually envision, made me wonder what made it so great. Finally, I figured out that he must have gotten some of the Transformers that were the rage at that time (ironically they are back!) or some other special toy. “What did you get for Christmas?” I asked in a confident I-know-what-you’re-going-to-say manner. The child looked me in the eye, threw back his head and laughed out loud. I couldn’t imagine what was so funny about my question, so I asked him, “What’s so funny?” He responded, “You should know what I got for Christmas. You gave it to me.” The globe shaped metal die cast pencil sharpener was the only gift he received that Christmas.
I still get full and teary-eyed when I remember this child’s joy and spirit. Since that time, I always try to create special memories for the children in schools where I work. My motto is that school is a place to learn, live, and love. It’s all I want for Christmas—every year. Happy New Year!
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