Rob Artley: Christmas tree delivery spurs defining realization
The last day of school before the holidays has always been special to me. Yet one stands out. It was a bittersweet yet defining memory of Christmas, experiencing the disparity in our world.
I was in the fifth grade. We had just finished lunch and were waiting for the class Christmas party, when the announcement was made that due to a developing storm, our party would be canceled and school would be dismissed.
While popcorn balls, cookies and Kool-Aid were passed out quickly, our teacher asked us all to gather at the windows to see the first snowfall. We watched the fluffy white blanket stick to our playground, altering the view of our world.
Gradually, over the next 30 minutes, the children were called to leave for home. First the country kids left for the buses, then the "townies." A few of us who live close by were asked to take down the decorations before we left. I was asked specifically to stay until the teacher got back from the office.
The popcorn strings and construction paper chains came off the tree until it sat empty. Other items on the walls were removed. The streamers and paper snowflakes that hung from the ceilings were the last to come down before the other children left.
Only Harold (not his real name) and I were left in the room.
We stood there, looking at the tree without its decorations. The faint smell of popcorn balls and polished floors added seasoning to a deserted classroom, stripped of its trappings — and its children. Everything was quiet and empty.
Harold's family lived in a dilapidated house down a lonesome street on the other side of town and it was rumored his father had a drinking problem and could not hold a job. Harold had straw-colored hair and wore shirts that were often too big for him. He always carried an apologetic smile on his face and was picked on by the older boys at recess. Although it bothered me, I never defended him.
Footsteps were heard coming down the hollow hall. Our teacher had returned. She said she had called my mom to ask if I could help Harold take the tree to his house.
We put on our "wraps" (as he had no boots or mittens), said our goodbyes and pulled the tree down the stairs and out into the winter afternoon.
We had just rounded the corner when I felt a snowball hit me. We were pushed to the ground, our faces thrust into the snow. Harold was held down and his coat ripped off. I could not breathe. I wiggled loose, hopped up and swung at the assailants, angry and scared. More snow hit me and I heard laughter and swearing as they kept smearing Harold with snow. He was their target.
They left abruptly, leaving us shaken.
Always having a temper, it now consumed me. Harold, on the other hand, seemed quite reconciled to his plight. Sobbing, he bent over, picked up the base of the tree and began trudging home, his ripped coat open wide.
I quickly followed.
I could hear his staggered breathing as we walked along, neither saying anything. He knew his painful place in this world. His attempt at happiness was gone. And I cried silently.
The snow came heavier as we approached his house; no lights inside, no one greeting him. His bare red hands were shaking as we stood the tree up against the porch and in the quiet of the falling snow, I saw a momentary flash of his familiar smile as he looked at his tree.
I said goodbye and left both him and his prize standing on the porch.
Facing the snow felt good as I moved along into the deep white. It was then I had that defining realization: I was so fortunate to have a family waiting for me, where tolerance, fairness and care of others was taught through example, where we were always told that we were all the same in God's eyes.
Yet I began learning, too, that there was a cold, nasty world out there — one that was bitter, combative and reluctant to care and very afraid.
Back past the school I walked and down my familiar street. Tree lights were coming on in front rooms. Christmas was finally coming.
I saw my home ahead of me; the gabled roof, the large front porch and the lit Christmas tree framed by the big friendly windows.
When I turned to go up our walk, I noticed Mom looking out the window.
And she was there to greet me when I came in the front door.