Updated: Nov 21, 2022
As a first-year teacher, December 1988 found me worn out and looking forward to the Christmas break. That last day of school was a cold, dreary one, but I practically danced through each class. For me the bell could not ring soon enough, but as we got closer to the end of the day, the anxiety in the kids rose. By 7th period, kids were crying, sobbing almost. What in the world?
“There’s no crying at Christmas,” I found myself saying over and over. What was wrong with my students?
At twenty–one, I wasn’t prepared for the answer to that question. I still don’t like the answer 33 years later. What was wrong with my students? “Too much” was, and still is today, the sad answer.
I’ll never forget the older, wiser math teacher talking to me at the end of that bizarre day. “Tammy, school is the best place for many of these kids,” she explained. “When they are here, they are warm, they are fed, and nobody hurts them. Most of our kids don’t want to be home for two weeks.” By the time she finished, I was the one in tears.
For me, winter break meant rest and rejuvenation. It meant stuffing myself with favorite foods like my Aunt Jenny’s mac and cheese and my mama’s coconut anything.
My Christmas memories were magical: candlelight services, matching pajamas for my sisters and me, a living room packed with gifts, falling asleep in front of the fire after a big breakfast. I grew up with a Christmas filled with love and indulgence. At twenty-one, I was naïve enough to believe everybody had a happy Christmas. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For many of my students, a two-week break took them away from their happy place. For them, school was magical. Teachers planned fun activities and praised them when they did well. The classrooms, the cafeteria, the gyms, even the portables, were warm and safe. For many students, school was the fantasyland. Home was reality, often more nightmare than fantasy. For two weeks, many of my students would not have power, a few would have no running water, and some of them would not be safe.
I always say that I learned more during my early years of teaching than my students. I did my best to prepare them for eighth grade, but they taught me about life. I learned how sheltered I had been. I saw that life can be hard, and life is not fair. My biggest takeaway? I learned that children suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions. That lesson applies to children in all socio-economic categories.
Cycles of poverty and abuse are hard to break. I know that, but I also know that no child should be hungry. In our country, we should be able to make sure that every child has enough to eat. That should be the parents’ job, but many parents are failing their children in that most basic way.
We can’t give every child a happy life. We can’t give every child a magical Christmas, but we should be able to make sure every child is fed. We should be able to do that.