The elementary school across the street from us drew from a diverse pool: kids with country homes and entire brownstones, others from the projects, a contingent of recent immigrants from Yemen. The parent body sported homemade gang tattoos and abayas. One dad had a Pulitzer Prize. Holidays were huge, as befitted the community’s wide range of cultural beliefs: Chinese New Year, Martin Luther King Day, Eid, a Parade of Literary Characters to appease the delegation that considered Halloween Satanic…and then there was the Winter Celebration, a full-court press encompassing Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and what the hell, Yule.
In 2002 when my firstborn was a kindergartner, I was all in. There seems to be a correlation between the age of a mother’s oldest child and the enthusiasm with which she embraces the hoopla.
Sometime between the Parade of Literary Characters and Thanksgiving, my daughter Inky’s teacher began a campaign for an event that would be the culmination of the classroom’s Winter Celebration. It was scheduled for the final school day of that calendar year. Parents were invited, nay, expected to participate. Her vision required a considerable amount of outside labor—cookies, decorations, and volunteer shifts. She also wanted to give us fair warning about the gift exchange, something that might be referred to in less culturally sensitive settings as Secret Santa.
The secret part was stressful. We’re talking five- and six-year-olds.
Also, the present had to be homemade. This was a lovely idea in theory, but the plan called for the kids to open them at the party, ceremonially, while everyone watched.
Most stress-inducing by far was a little girl I’ll call Tiara.Finally, the big day arrived. There was an impressive mound of presents in the center of the rug, thrillingly wrapped. The kids were delirious. The adults’ excitement had a jittery edge. We’d all initiated discussions on manners, how it’s the thought that counts and how it’s important to say thanks even if you don’t like what you get. Tiara wasn’t there.
Tiara was the only child permitted to eat breakfast in the classroom. Others arrived early to partake of the free breakfast served in the cafeteria, but Tiara lived outside the district and had five siblings, one of whom was a baby her single mother dropped at daycare downtown before continuing on to her job in another borough. Tiara’s oldest sister, a fifth grader, was responsible for getting everyone except the baby to school from the subway stop several blocks away. Our teacher had arranged to save a meal for Tiara, which was kept warm in a Styrofoam container on her desk, to be served at whatever time she rolled in. She had a lot of tardies.
At the end of the day, Tiara’s sister reappeared to collect her siblings and herded them—and herself—to the daycare the baby attended to await their mother.
The teacher viewed the interactions of kindergarten pickup as a chance to monitor our Winter Celebration progress. The type A parents were on top of it (they were on top of everything), the B’s and C’s a little less so. Tiara’s sister, the maternal stand-in as far as the vast quantities of correspondence traveling back and forth by backpack was concerned, was difficult to read.
As the date of the party grew nigh, the reminders to Tiara’s sister grew dire.
You understand that Tiara is responsible for bringing a present? This is not optional.
You know it should be something she makes herself?
If she doesn’t get it done in time, one of her friends won’t get a present. That wouldn’t be fair.
I felt for the teacher—I too have a habit of coming up with elaborate plans whose success hinges on the participation of others—but it seemed like an awful lot to heap on an already burdened 11-year-old.
Finally, the big day arrived. There was an impressive mound of presents in the center of the rug, thrillingly wrapped. The kids were delirious. The adults’ excitement had a jittery edge. We’d all initiated discussions on manners, how it’s the thought that counts and how it’s important to say thanks even if you don’t like what you get.
Tiara wasn’t there.
The teacher kicked things off with a speech about the superiority of homemade to store-bought. The kids didn’t contradict this potentially controversial view, having been indoctrinated since November.
Then it was show time.
The first child opened a present—a jewelry box encrusted with plastic gemstones, a beaded necklace and bracelet inside. How beautiful, they match!
The next child reached inside a gift bag and pulled out a lopsided creature made of felt and buttons. Isn’t that adorable? Hold it up so everyone can see!
The kids were outdoing themselves in the thank-you department: hugging the gift, hugging the giver, running around the circle slapping palms. We were creating a generation of photogenic attention seekers, but their glee was infectious and sincere.
The teacher’s gamble had paid off.
Finally, he broke the spell by hugging the cup to his chest, screaming “My plant! My own plant!” His delight had a temperature. Everyone in the room was warmed by it. I worried that his exuberance might accidentally snap the fragile shoot, but it survived.It was all great fun, but even as I was oohing and doing my best to look modest when the wooden spoon puppets that were Inky’s contribution were revealed, I was dogged by dread. Surely a contingency plan was in place, a present in the teacher’s desk for whomever Tiara had picked in the name draw. If not, maybe I could dash across the street to our apartment. I’d be able to find something that would constitute a present. It wouldn’t be homemade, but a fistful of leftover birthday party favors is better than nothing. I could donate my wooden spoon, throw in some rags and a couple of markers and call it a puppet-making kit.
Just one or two gifts remained when Tiara arrived bearing a battered Styrofoam cup filled with dirt, upon which the words MARRY CRISSMUSS were gouged in blue ballpoint. A perilously spindly bean sprout peeped over the edge.
“Oh good,” the teacher said with a bright and practiced mask. “We’re all here!”
The parents waved at Tiara, calling out words of welcome, as they secretly calculated which of the children hadn’t yet unwrapped a present.
“Why don’t you put your coat in your cubby and join us on the rug?” the teacher suggested. “Do you remember whose name you drew?”
The children were silent, possibly confused, expecting Tiara to pull a gaily wrapped parcel from her pack.
I guess it was too late to bother about breakfast.
It took her a while to get free of her winter gear. The snow boots stayed on to make a scuffing sound as she headed across the rug toward a little boy who’d been waiting his turn more or less patiently, cheering as classmates tore into bags and boxes containing board games, cookies, and a ring toss someone’s mom and dad must have worked on for weeks. Naturally, this boy’s heart was set on something equally good.
Tiara passed him the cup.
He regarded it for an eternity. The adults held their breath as one.
Finally, he broke the spell by hugging the cup to his chest, screaming “My plant! My own plant!” His delight had a temperature. Everyone in the room was warmed by it. I worried that his exuberance might accidentally snap the fragile shoot, but it survived.
Tiara appeared pleased—but not in a way that betrayed prior concern. She had trusted that her gift was a good one, a belief her classmate’s reaction confirmed.
If parallels to Charlie Brown’s scrawny Christmas tree were being drawn, the adults were the only ones doing so. The kids were able to see past the grubby cup, the scratchy ballpoint. The vessel was of no consequence to them. What mattered was the plant—not because it was a living thing or proof of advance planning. A plant is a very adult sort of thing to own. You wouldn’t give a baby a plant. It wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility. No wonder that little boy was so psyched. He wore his newfound status like a mantle. Why should the size of the plant be reason for concern when, as every kindergartner knows, it’s the job of a plant to grow?