National Public Radio’s replay its once-annual Christmas Story by John Henry Faulk brought back one of the many intense emotional experiences I shared with my students at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City.
My father had died at the end of the Christmas holiday, and I returned to school a week later. My scheduled lesson sat on the desk, but I had not given it any thought. I was on duty that morning, accepting condolences, when a starving pit bull walked in the door and begged for help. The dog was beyond saving, so I coaxed it into my classroom until Animal Control arrived. My first hour class was moved to another room. I grabbed some of my prepared lesson and started to teach.
Ordinarily, this was a multimedia lesson. I’d hand out transcripts of the “Christmas Story," and then play an audiotape of John Henry Faulk reading his account of white and black sharecroppers sharing a Christmas dinner. The lesson always was a great success, but the story reminded me of my father, so I knew I had to make a quick decision about whether I could handle the emotion. I only had one copy of the transcript with me, and I did not know if I was up to reading such a powerful narrative.
I did fine during the first paragraph:
The day after Christmas a number of years ago, I was driving down a country road in Texas. And it was a bitter cold, cold morning. And walking ahead of me on the gravel road was a little bare-footed boy with non-descript ragged overalls and a makeshift sleeved sweater tied around his little ears. I stopped and picked him up. Looked like he was about 12 years old and his little feet were blue with the cold. He was carrying an orange.
I got through the first page describing the boy and his family being warned to not get their hopes up in case the promised Christmas dinner didn’t happen. But papa came home with two chickens and “bags of stripety candy and apples and oranges and sacks of flour and some real coffee, you know, and just all tinselly and pretty and we couldn't say nothing.”
Then papa sees:
Sam Jackson a-leading that old cripple-legged mule of his up the lane. And papa said, "Sam Jackson, did you get in town to get some Christmas this year?" Sam Jackson, you know, he sharecrops over there across the creek from our place. And he shook his head and said, "Well, no, sir, Mister. Well, I didn't go in town. I heared about that, but I didn't know it was for colored folks, too. I thought it was just for you white families."
At that, I started to cry. Matt (as I will call him), a little white kid, took over. He read:
Papa, he broke out in a big grin again. He said, "Dad-blame-it, Sam Jackson, it's a sure a good thing you come by here. Lord have mercy, I liked to forgot. Old Santa Claus would have me in court if he heared about this. The last thing he asked me if I lived out here near you. Said he hadn't seen you around and said he wanted me to bring part of this out here to you and your family, your woman and your children."
Usually Matt struggled when reading, but he barely missed a beat with the rest of the story where the black and white families shared Christmas dinner. “We played Christmastime till we just wore ourselves out,” the white child recalled. He sat “right next to Willy Jackson, you know, and he just rolled his eyes at me and I'd roll mine at him.” Sam Jackson led the prayer, "Lord, I hope you having as nice a Christmas up there with your angels as we're having down here because it sure is Christmastime down here.”
The room full of black students cheered Matt’s recital of the concluding words:
“Like I say, Mister, I believe that was the wonderfulest Christmas in the United States of America."'
My most unsettling discussion of the year involved Matt, who had been one of our success stories. Matt and I had been exceptionally close during for his entire high school career. A member of Matt's family would not stop pressuring me to admit that my student would have no future after graduation.
At that time, I was being encouraged to apply for a more prestigious out-of-state job, but I was unsure whether I was emotionally ready to leave my students.
The week before I planned to visit Colorado and perhaps commit to a new career, my little buddy died. At Matt’s funeral, a family member in the front row walked out of the ceremony. I then knew I could not walk out on my kids.