Two of my students came to school early a few days ago to finish up a project that they were working on for my class. As they put the finishing touches on their work, one girl remarked that she was putting up her Christmas tree that night.
“When are you putting up your Christmas tree, Stacey?” Tiffany asked. (Not their real names.)
“Oh,” Stacey said softly, “um, I don’t know.”
“I thought we were late!” Tiffany exclaimed. “I guess you’ll probably be later than us.”
“It’s not that,” Stacey said. “My dad said we might not have a Christmas tree this year.”
“Why?” Tiffany asked.
“He says we can’t afford one,” Stacey said. “He only gets paid when he works, and he isn’t getting work, really, right now. Like, one or two days a week only, sometimes.”
Tiffany clearly felt terrible about leading Stacey into discussing such a sensitive issue. “Oh,” she said, retreating into jotting some notes on the script of the skit she would be performing during her social studies class later that day.
Stacey didn’t say anything for a minute or so, then changed the subject to something funny one of their classmates had said the previous day. Tiffany, relieved, responded, and the two struck up a lively conversation as though nothing had happened.
Stacey’s admission stuck with me all day, however. I was riding the train with my husband later that night and asked him, “What would you do if a kid told you that her family couldn’t afford a Christmas tree?”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” he said, knowing that I wasn’t kidding at all.
“Maybe I should put up a tree in my classroom,” I joked, knowing that my husband knows how much I hate decorating. It’s enough work for me to keep up with the nine (that is not a typo) bulletin boards in my classroom.
I told him what Tiffany and Stacey had said in my classroom that morning, and he sighed and shook his head. He’s heard many “tales out of school” during my teaching career in this fair city, but ones like this break both our hearts all over again. It might not be the saddest story I’ve ever heard from a child, true—this young lady has an intact, loving family and she is clearly cared for well. But I don’t think anyone can argue that the idea of young children without a tree at Christmas is just a little upsetting.
As this girl’s teacher, I don’t know what to do. I know that many families are going to be experiencing very lean holidays this year, that many families will count themselves lucky if they have a home and food to eat this year. I know, too, that I am in a luxurious position inasmuch as I can do a very small something about all of it—I have a steady paycheck, my husband has a good job, and no one in my family is suffering too badly. I could go on ARIS, look up this girl’s address, and mail a C-note anonymously. And believe me, I’ve thought about it. I don’t care if it’s “appropriate”—a kid whose family can’t afford a Christmas tree is inappropriate, too. And I know I can’t do this all the time for every child, but I can’t get this girl out of my head. Is there a right thing to do in these circumstances?
The first chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women begins with the famous lamentation, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” This girl doesn’t even want presents—she just wants a frickin’ tree.