Twenty-one paper turkeys (looking suspiciously like twenty-one first grade hands) flocked together on the window at the entrance of Mrs. Dodd's classroom. The finger-feathers on each glistened in colors never intended by nature but ever so vivid in the giant 64 crayon box with the sharpener on back - colors like "magenta," "Caribbean green," "periwinkle," "salmon," "carnation pink," and "robin egg blue." Each bird’s thumb-head was complete with wattle, giant smile and soulful human-like eyes. Some were even adorned with necklaces and baseball caps.
As I entered the classroom, I was immediately surrounded by my adoring six-year-old fans each clamoring to give me a hug, each eager to share his or her work with me. Mrs. Dodd, accustomed to my daily walk-throughs, endured this interruption with immense grace. I love first graders, but I certainly do not have the courage to spend six hours a day locked in a room with a flock of them.
This particular group of kids was one of my favorites to visit during my morning tour of campus. The students beamed as I listened to them read their journals aloud to me. They delighted in “teaching” me how to add problems on their little white boards. And they laughed as I sat on the floor with them in their reading circle and waved my hand impatiently when Mrs. Dodd asked a question. They even composed a "stop in your tracks - just relax" song especially for me which they willingly sang upon request on days when I needed it most.
Thanksgiving week marks the beginning of the holiday season, the beginning of "hyper-energy mode" for children of all ages who can barely contain their excitement. The three day school week helps to ease teachers and students alike into this stressful time and provides a little motivation for getting the work at hand accomplished.
Most of the children in the primary grades were immersed in holiday-related activities this particular Monday. There were a lot of paper turkeys on campus along with numerous similarly multicolored gourds and Pilgrim hats. A wide array of pumpkin projects were in full swing ranging from seed counting, seed roasting, pie baking and muffin making. I made sure that I put in my order for samples of the baked goods and continued along my journey through all of the classrooms.
"Hyper-energy mode" kicked into full force as the lunch and lunch recess rotations began. I started receiving some of my regulars and a few new visitors sent to my office for an assortment of offenses ranging from pushing and shoving and name-calling to full-fledged fights and disrespect to the adults on duty. Surprisingly, the little kids outnumbered the junior high students. For most, a call to parents was sufficient as a consequence. Amazing the power of threatening to tell Santa of one's misbehavior!
The students in Mrs. Dodd's classroom, however, were not part of this group of rebels. It was a bit of a mystery to me, although a pleasant one, as many of these children had been "frequent flyers" as kindergarteners. At least half of the class had been with Mrs. Dodd the spring before when she volunteered to "loop" up with them to first grade. This strong teacher had inherited that class when their original teacher decided to retire mid-year. The inheritance included thirty five-year-olds, many with behavioral issues or emotional disorders or both. I was summoned to her classroom frequently to remove a disruptive child - the boy who threw crayons and chairs and scissors (parents could not afford medication), the girl who screamed, cried and climbed up to rest on the top shelf of the bookcase (parents had recently divorced), the boy who pulled hair and punched others randomly (parents were overwhelmed dealing with two other sons in detention centers) - just to name a few.
One afternoon I rushed to take away the non-medicated boy who was finishing off a box of crayon missiles. Mrs. Dodd was calmly escorting the rest of the class outside using her sweetest, in control voice. "Boys and girls, it's time for us to go outside and exercise our bodies so that our minds can work better," she smoothly crooned. "Come now, hurry along, what a beautiful day." What a natural, I thought. How can she be so composed?
At the end of the day, after all her children had been placed on the bus or in the arms of their doting parents, Mrs. Dodd entered my office, finally allowing herself to break down. "I can't do this anymore," she sobbed. I allowed her to work through her frustration and, together, we came up with a few solutions to help her deal with her most extreme kids.
A few days later, I learned that Mrs. Dodd had more on her mind than her energized class. She and her husband had only recently learned that they had lost their home, unable to keep up with the mortgage payments.
Here she was now teaching many of the same students, most of whom had finally worked through their problems emerging a little more sane at six. Despite her own personal difficulties, she greeted them daily with a smile, patience and compassion. She said she had a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
Once all lunch recesses were over and all students were back in their rooms, I was able to extricate myself from my office and begin my afternoon walk-throughs. A whole new assortment of holiday crafts were in progress.
My favorite first graders and their teacher were sitting on the floor in the reading corner listening to Mrs. Alexander, the school counselor, read a book about sharing. I took my place alongside them, criss-cross-apple-sauce, and practiced my good listening skills.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Alexander led the class in a discussion of sharing. "The holidays are a great time to remember our friends and families. But we also have to remember to take care of others who may not have as much as we have," she began.
"But my mom said we shouldn't talk to strangers," little Amy interjected.
"Well, she's right," Mrs. Alexander responded. "But as a family, with your mom and dad, you could donate food or clothes to places that can help others less fortunate."
"When my shirts and pants get too small, my mom gives them to my cousin," stocky Jonathan stated.
"That's wonderful, Jonathan!" Mrs. Alexander was so good at remembering all their names! And she was always so positive, even when things in her life weren't. Earlier in the year, her husband had lost his job. Now they were trying to make ends meet on a meager teacher salary.
I thought of my own paltry salary and the bills on the kitchen table and worried that, I too, was living check to check. I started to drift off into a financial black cloud, but the school counselor yanked me back into the present moment.
"Boys and girls, how else can we show people that we care?" she continued.
"I give my green beans to my dog when my dad isn't looking," offered Alec, his red hair sticking out at strange angles from his head. The others laughed, and soon several hands were up with their owners wishing to share dog stories as well.
Mrs. Alexander deftly guided the discussion back to the topic at hand. "Not a bad idea, guys. We also have to remember the animals. We could always share with animal shelters by bringing in blankets and food. Great ideas!"
There was a short lull in the conversation as the little first graders strained to come up with more examples of sharing. I noticed that Tino, one of Mrs. Dodd's most polite, well-mannered boys had been sitting quietly throughout the discussion but was now struggling with some worry on his mind. He squirmed a bit, scrunched up his face and finally raised his hand.
"Thank you for such great manners, Tino. I love how you raised your hand when you wanted my attention," Mrs. Alexander praised.
Tino looked down at the ground for a minute and then blurted out, "We lost our house and now we have to move. I don't know where I'm going to live!" He began to cry.
A lump began forming in my throat. I blinked away my own tears as I glanced at Mrs. Dodd and then at Mrs. Alexander. Little children are a little like turkeys, I thought, remembering a scientific fact I had picked up in a fifth grade classroom earlier in the day. They both have extremely keen vision and hearing. They see and hear everything - even when we think they aren't paying attention. But six-year-olds should not have to worry about things like foreclosures and hunger, I agonized.
Mrs. Alexander jumped to the rescue again. "Now don't you worry, Tino. Everything is going to be alright. You have a lot of friends sitting right here with you, and we are going to take care of you and your family."
Jacob put his arm around Tino's shoulders and gave his buddy a hug. Tino wiped his eyes.
I moved on to the rest of the classrooms with a heaviness on my heart. Not fair, I kept thinking, just not fair.
A week after the four-day weekend, Mrs. Alexander began her school-wide food drive and blanket drive and Adopt-a-Family drive. She accepted names of families in need placing Tino's at the top of the list. Then she set out to talk to the adults in each family about their Christmas needs and the wishes of their children.
Tino's father was extremely cordial. It wasn't hard to see where his son had learned to be courteous and kind. Dad politely, yet firmly, declined any charity. "I don't mean to be ungrateful," he started. "But there are so many people out there worse off than us. Please, help them. Please. We have family, and they will help us get through these hard times. We'll be okay."
The last day before Christmas Break came quickly. The students were filled with energy; their teachers had little left. My tour of campus led me through many classroom parties. I collected cookies and cupcakes and chips and candy in nearly every room and distributed my loot in each subsequent room.
The children in Mrs. Dodd's room rushed me as usual and embraced me in a million hugs. "Can we sing the 'stay calm' song for you, Mr. Ramsey?" they squealed. "Sure," I replied. "I think I'm going to need it today!"
They sang and then covered me in joyful hugs once more. Cheerful little Jennifer rushed to her desk and returned with a Christmas card and a small box of candy. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Ramsey," she chirped as she handed them to me.
I thanked her and wished everyone a safe, happy holiday. In beautiful harmony, they returned the wish to me. I started for the door but felt a tiny tug on my sleeve. I turned to see Tino looking up at me with a big smile. He held his hand out offering me half of a candy cane. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Ramsey," he whispered.
"Merry Christmas, Tino," I replied. I gave him a big hug and a high-five and moved toward the door again with a different kind of lump forming in my throat. "Thank you, Tino. Thank you so much! This is the best gift!"
Indeed it was.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey.