Today’s post is by my friend Amber Hood, who is one of the most generous and compassionate people I know. I’m not sure if her students know how blessed they are to know her!
Most of us know “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry. It’s about a young couple that doesn’t have very much money at Christmas. The wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, but the husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife. This week, my 7th grade creative writing students and I read this story. One of my sweet kiddos sitting next to me provided a running commentary as I read aloud.
“Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining.”
“Mmm, girl. You get that hair, girl. Work it.” He pretended to play with invisible long wavy hair.
“’I buy hair,’ said Madame Sofronie.”
“What is happening? No! Don’t do it, Della! Don’t do it!”
I read to the end, and he flipped his papers over in disgust. “What do you think?” I said.
“That was a terrible story! Those people are poor! Why would you read that to us?”
I figured he’d appreciate the lesson once he started on the assignment. I wrote on the board, “Are Della and Jim wise gift givers or unwise? Give three reasons. Support your answers with evidence from the text.”
Without exception, all of my students agreed that Della and Jim were wise. The students articulated thoughtful responses about generosity, sacrifice, the true spirit of Christmas, and love. These have always been the themes I think of too when reading the story, and I’ve always felt it was a powerful message.
But the sad story of Della and Jim seemed to really stick with that one little boy, and I found it once again sticking to me too. My kiddo had a point. As much as I love that story, it isn’t very happy, is it? Christmas stories should be happy like getting the bad guys in Home Alone or eating syrup on spaghetti like in Elf. The original Christmas story is the happiest of all with kings bringing gifts and the skies filling up with angels singing and a shining star and a newborn baby who doesn’t even cry. When it comes down to it, Della and Jim don’t actually have a very merry Christmas, do they? I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have read the story. Many of my students are impoverished themselves. They understand Della’s and Jim’s sacrifice. They know what it is to be generous having been on both sides of it. And they are children, so they understand what it means to love sometimes even more than their teacher does.
In looking at the story again, I started to think more about Della’s hair and Jim’s watch, which before had always seemed like arbitrary props to help O. Henry make his way to the plot twist and life lesson combo at the end. Now, though, I realize Della’s hair is synonymous with her feminine charms that at the turn of the century would have been one of the most important things about her, and Jim’s watch is the only wealth he has. Without her hair, O. Henry calls Della “truant;” she’s in “ravages.” She’s damaged. Without his watch, Jim has no status symbols. Where does our pair now belong? On the outset, they seem to have lost their worth according to society. But, my 7th graders insist Jim and Della did the right thing. What could this mean? That it’s okay to not fit into a societal standard? That it’s okay if you don’t seem to have much significance to what society deems significant? In fact, not only is it okay to be lost or losing, it might even be wise. This damage isn’t something that makes us merely tolerable– it’s how God intended. It’s our pain and our imperfections and our lack of gold pocket watches and even our baldness that make us precisely who we are supposed to be.