Monday, December 24, 2012
All I Want for Christmas
Today’s letter really isn’t a letter at all. Rather, it’s a short essay that I wrote about 3 years ago after the events mentioned within transpired. I intended it to be read to my AP Human Geography class, but the sentiment is one in which anyone can share. I hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrated Hanukkah earlier this month, are celebrating Christmas today and tomorrow, or the New Year next week. May each of these special days remind you of what’s truly important in your life. I hope to continue with the thematic letters on the five qualities soon.
I want to tell you about a boy named Jonathan. Jonathan is the five year old son of two migrant workers and is the oldest of four children. When he joined Erin’s kindergarten class, it was his first exposure to school and he began more than a month late. He came to her speaking no English and, surprisingly, little Spanish. Salimar, another of Erin’s students, would often try to act as a translator for Erin, but Jonathan just stared at them when they would try to talk with him. Over the past few months, though, he slowly made gains as Erin worked closely by his side. About two months after his arrival, the word “apple” came from Jonathan’s lips along with a huge smile. Shortly thereafter, he could say “yellow,” which is apparently his favorite color.
About two weeks ago, Jonathan stopped coming to school. By the end of the first week, Erin came home with tears welling in her eyes because she was afraid of what might have happened to him. She wondered whether or not he had enough to eat; she told me that before the school had placed him in the free and reduced lunch program, he would come to school with an ear of raw corn for lunch, undoubtedly food that had been given to his parents in lieu of cash for their labor. An entire second week had almost passed when he finally appeared alongside his mother last Friday. She explained and apologized in broken English for Jonathan’s absence; she had recently given birth to his baby brother and, coupled with not finding any work, the circumstances had forced her, her husband and the rest of Jonathan’s family to move in with relatives in Ruskin. Before leaving, Erin asked for the address so that we could bring his Christmas gifts to his new home; he was the child Erin and I specifically adopted to shower with gifts, especially educational toys that would help him continue to learn English.
This past Saturday, Erin and I packed Jonathan’s wrapped gifts into our trunk and made the drive to Ruskin. When we found the address, we turned into a large trailer park that was clearly home to only migrant workers. Driving through the park, my eyes caught sight of a dilapidated swing set that sat barren and lifeless with only one chain hanging from the bar that playfully jostled in the wind. It only got worse. As we neared Jonathan’s trailer, his mother emerged from the doorway onto the wooden and weatherworn ramshackle steps with the newborn in her arms. She waved to us as we pulled up alongside their home. I got the presents from the trunk and as we proceeded up the steps the rest of the children gathered about the mother excitedly. Jonathan beamed with his characteristic smile, the same one Erin had described to me when he said his first word in English. Jonathan’s mother invited us in.
As soon as I entered, I was shocked by the emptiness of the home. It was a singlewide trailer with one bedroom at either end. The one to the right was presumably the bedroom of Jonathan’s extended family. Three small girls curiously peeked out of a crack between the door and the frame before hearing their mother tell them to close it. The only furniture in sight in the entire middle section of the home was a lone picnic table, toward which the mother motioned me to sit. Erin had made small stockings for each of the two younger sisters and I’ve never seen two children so grateful to have one lollipop, a canister of generic Play-Doh, and a few stickers. They opened the Play-Doh and looked with amazement as they removed it from the can and squished it in their tiny hands. Jonathan began unwrapping his first gift, a soccer ball, when his oldest cousin opened the back bedroom door and sadly asked me a question: “Where do you put your name in to get presents?” Erin explained that she was Jonathan’s kindergarten teacher and that he was part of a program at school to give students gifts. The girl remarked that they didn’t do that at her school and then closed the door.
The afternoon sun was beginning to come through the window and I squinted and moved over before noticing the “curtains,” which were black garbage bags that had been split down the seams and then stapled to the window frame. I began to take stock of the rest of the house; not only was it devoid of furniture, but there was no television, no radio, no phone, not anything that most of us sitting in this room take for granted. Besides an old electric stove and a beat up refrigerator, the only piece of “technology” they had was an ancient microwave with a dial timer. After Jonathan opened all of his gifts, Erin gave him a hug and said “te amo”; he smiled again and went right back to his toys. Erin and I then gave his mother some cash to help them through what are sure to be tough times this holiday season. When we left, Erin told me it took everything she had not to cry when she saw how Jonathan lived. Imagine: four adults and seven children living in a trailer, presumably sleeping on the floor with blankets and eating communal meals on their one piece of furniture, a picnic table.
The other day one of my students asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about it for quite some time and I told him that I wanted him to do something kind for someone he normally wouldn’t. In our American culture, we have the tendency to point the finger when things don’t go our way—we judge, label, accuse, mock, or deride anyone who doesn’t fit our worldview. In high school it’s even worse because peer pressure often forces students to accept only certain people into the fold and shun others. If anything, I sincerely hope that the first semester of AP Human Geography has taught you that life is not black and white. Life, more than anything, is a struggle. And we all rise to meet that struggle in different ways. So before we judge, label, accuse, mock or deride those who don’t fit into our worldview or what we think of as “normal,” perhaps we should celebrate our diversity and try to become a little more inclusive of others. After all, people are people. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what types of food you eat, the religion you believe in, or where you come from. If you cut someone, I guarantee that person will feel pain and his/her blood will run red. We are all one family after all. We are all human beings. And all I want for Christmas is the same thing we all want: to be good to one another, to be loved, and to accept each other for who we are and not who we want them to be.