A season to give with grace, not guilt.
'Tis the season, as the saying goes, and though I'm never sure precisely what the phrase applies to - perhaps everything - I embrace it as I embrace everything that's conveniently broad and promises a desirable outcome.
Yes, yes. 'Tis the season: The roads packed around every mini-mall and outlet store in America for gift returns, that frantic rush to turn good intentions to satisfaction and get the stuff you really wanted. The toys move on and off the shelves - or, in some cases now, move themselves, their motorized plastic-and-silicon limbs a-turning. Children sit mesmerized in front of the next system, the Wii that arrived in the wee hours, Santa having struck again, flush with kicker-check cash. The children of millionaires motor about in new Beamers, and the poor kids thank their lucky legislation that this year, Mommy could afford a tree.
I say such a thing because my friend, the single mother of three who's between jobs, bought her tree late - a scant three days before Christmas - when a friend's card contained the cash to cover the heat and water bill and a Noble fir. Not to belabor the point concerning our country's social inequalities or materialism, but the holidays ain't the same to us all.
So what's the reason for the season? Sometimes it's hard to say. Long before Dec. 25, the music was tinny out the speakers at the cafe and the office. Enough jingle-bell rock, it seemed; bring on the choir and "Silent Night," silence the machines of commerce and industry. Remember the importance of what's important.
Of course, the day after Christmas it's "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz," the Beamer so soon to be last year's model; and it wasn't so different before the Day of Gifts.
I'm no exception: before Christmas, I'd already had the privilege of vacation, my whole family off to Mexico's white-sand beaches for margaritas and sun and back again. The whole thing was paid by my father, a doctor, whose kicker carried us all to the land of palm trees, and put us up in a colonial stucco beach house with an ocean view. Seven nights with the sound of surf, and the palm fronds swaying out the windows.
I scoured the beach for conch shells, and brought three back for my friend's kids, a free and easy gift. I intended it to be a thoughtful gesture, and they enjoyed the shells, standing in their newly treed living room listening for the sound of ocean. The television was on in the background - the local news, no cable for them - and the 9-year old finally put her hands to her hips and declared, "It's too loud to hear!"
She was right: All you could hear was a news report on what was flying out of stores and down metaphorical chimneys. I began to say that she ought to turn down the television, started past their tree with nothing under it (my friend was waiting to shop, waiting to see how much her ex-husband might contribute to get the kids what they really wanted), and stopped.
The problem wasn't noise, but that I'd brought such an insufficient echo of ocean.
When I taught in the black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, in the poorest county of the poorest state in the nation, I often felt similarly. Here was need, and here was the meagerness of what I had to give: too little for those starved by poverty and narrow horizons.
My kids were lively and bright and already four years behind 9-year olds in a place like Eugene. Most had never left the county, couldn't imagine a city, a mountain, even the concept of beach. Their world, beyond the razor-wire fences of the school, was no broader than the dusty streets of the wrong side of the tracks, the sloped tin roofs and sagging porches of shotgun shacks and trailers mounted on cinderblocks. Possibility looked like a 12-year-old girl pushing a stroller, like a 12-year-old boy swaggering down the street, pants below the hips and head shaved so you could see the contours of the skull, dreaming of a caddy on 22s, that first, innocent step toward Parchman prison.
Every year at this time, we're asked to think of those less fortunate. The guilt card comes up, and we get out of jail free by donating something to charity, or picking an ornament off the giving tree down at the mall as we buy our wives diamonds and pearls, our children video-game systems with images clearer than life.
Or perhaps we just remember we're lucky. I did both there in my friend's living room, tanned still from the Mexican sun: I resolved to do better than shells for those kids, and felt grateful for the opportunities I have. And I remembered that assuaging my guilt isn't the point. 'Tis the season for seeing what's bigger than ourselves - those who have less, and those who have more. Not obligation, but interconnection; not the ornament on the giving tree, but the world out there we have a stake in.
That's the essence of the season: Hope that we can be better than we were, that this year we might make a difference. Offer an ocean for all.
Michael Copperman taught fourth grade in Indianola, Miss., with Teach For America from 2002-04. He teaches writing at the University of Oregon through the Office of Multicultural Academic Support.
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Dec 27, 2007|
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