Every year, when the excitement of the winter holidays begins to permeate my school, I find myself reflecting on what I’m thankful for and remembering all I have received over the years from my special students.
As my colleagues and I pack up our cars on that last day before the holiday break, I look over the most recent collection of coffee mugs, chocolate samplers, and scented candles, and think about the gifts our students bestow upon us that don’t endanger our New Year’s diet plans or exude the scent of vanilla and spice.
I think of Cindi, the sixth grader who stamped her envelopes and computer paper with cats and matching address labels because she knew how much I loved my kitties. Recently, Cindi was on our local oldies radio station helping raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A few years ago, after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a freshman in high school, Cindi herself was in a position to have a wish granted and asked to go to the Mall of America. Her dignity and courage have stayed with me always—a gift that can’t be wrapped.
Then there’s the year I made my second attempt to achieve National Board certification and chose Karen as the subject of my teaching demonstration. Karen has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that requires frequent MRI’s to determine if her benign tumors will become cancerous. I taught her to use a journal to help her with her writing disability. I remember when she came to her teachers and asked, “Could Team 6A please pray for me when I go for my CAT scan so it will be good news?” We did, and it was. My favorite photo is of Karen in a fancy black dress, celebrating her transition from 8th grade to high school. Her gift? She taught me that it’s okay to ask for help when we’re scared.
Then there’s Daniel and Peter. The fall I had them in middle school, both of their mothers were diagnosed with cancer. Their moms couldn’t work because they were going through chemotherapy. I stood in our local grocery story, crying my eyes out as I listened to Christmas music playing, wondering what Santa would bring them. I decided right then I would buy them lunch on our last day before vacation and bring a special holiday dinner to their moms. I got the best Chanukah gift of all that year—hugs from those two brave moms and their special sons.
Every year, when I unwrap the painted plaster snowmen from my box of holiday decorations, I remember Rochele (“with one L, not two”). She came to Room 312 full of anger, arms crossed, refusing to read. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get her to smile or engage, I called her grandmother, whose name was on her IEP. She explained that Rochele’s mother had given up custody of her the day she was born and had shown no interest in seeing or talking to her since. There were all kinds of promises around birthdays and holidays, but no cards, no gifts, and no phone calls.
Because the grandfather had a heart condition and couldn’t accept a job, Rochele's grandmother worked 60 hours a week trying to provide for her. Although her grandmother could pay the rent and buy food, there wasn’t much left over for the holidays. The grandmother explained how difficult and frustrating reading was for Rochele—and helped me understand her behavior during those first months of school. Kate, our science teacher, suggested we become Santa for Rochele. It started off small, with each of us contributing money, but then there was the Barbie dollhouse from a colleague on another team (middle school girls don’t want to admit it, but they still like Barbies!).
Our plan was to have Santa’s elves drop off the gifts at her grandmother’s home, all wrapped and ready to put under the tree. Then I had an idea: I started e-mailing Rochele to see if she would like to go for a special Christmas night out with “the Girls” and bring her best friend Brooke along. I thought e-mailing her would be more low-key than talking and might even encourage her reading. Rochele liked the idea and said she’d never been to see the play “A Christmas Carol.” Although she had bronchitis, Rochele sat on the edge of her theater seat the whole night. When she came back after Christmas break, she started to read a little. Then slowly she began reading every day.
Brooke and Rochele are seniors now, and they still visit us. Each December when I unwrap Rochele’s snowmen, I am grateful for that wonderful night on the town with the girls—for the opportunity these children gave us to love them like our own, and for the chance to once again hear Tiny Tim’s prayer for special kids: “Bless us every one.”