Magi

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.

 

 

Day 2: Dear darling boys

*Thanks to my generous and zany friend Amber Hood for serving as today’s contributor to my November “Dear Gratitude” letter writing project. Each day in November, a different writer will share a letter to someone or something she is thankful for.*

Darling boys in my class—

teenage boy for amber blogI have first hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a 7th grade girl. It isn’t easy, and now I know you all, and I love you all, and when I am not crazy mad at you for nearly poking someone’s eye out with a pencil (yes, I know he needed to borrow it, but that doesn’t mean throw it; that means pass it or hand it), then far too often my heart is breaking for you as I see you face your struggles.

When the girl you like laughs at you or when you say, “My uncle died last year, and sometimes I still get really sad about it,” I don’t know how to make it better. And it’s these times when I feel so unsure of my ability to teach you or to help you grow, but just when it gets really dark, I see you reach out to the new kid who is not very cool, and I see you boys take responsibility for your actions with more dignity than most grown men, and I know it isn’t my job to make you into the person you should be but to be your number one fan as you realize it on your own.

I am so grateful for you sweet boys for teaching me so much more than I could teach you.  Some days I think my life is pretty tough trying to help you fellows read better when you’d all rather bounce around my room, but I have these little moments, like when you make an A on your geography project, and I’m so proud of you not just because I know that class is hard but mostly because I know you probably walked to the dollar store and used your own money to get the poster board you needed.  I’m in awe of the way you treat the lady at the store on the corner with respect when you buy a coke and chips from her even though she scowls at you and watches you closely assuming you will steal from her because your skin is dark, and you look like a man even though you are only 13.

Thank you, my brave and clever and kind and funny and scrappy young men. You give purpose to my days and so much hope that we’re all going to be okay.

Want to support hard-working 7th grade readers? Please visit my classroom wish list. http://www.walmart.com/giftregistry/gr_detail.do?registryId=80522943011It’s no secret that teachers often spend their own money on what their children need. This is especially true in schools with a high poverty rate. Please consider spending a few dollars so that these young men (and my sweet girls, too) can have more books to read, more pencils to chew on, more after school snacks for those who need them, and more paper to create some of their first works of story and poetry. You’ll serve as an excellent reason for me to get them to learn how to write thank you notes.