First Year Ornament

Just days before Christmas break in 1980 I was a first year science teacher teaching in the lowest-paying school system in the entire state. Kindergarteners to twelfth-graders were all under the same roof. Overworked, disillusioned, and more of a babysitter than educator, I was broken and ready to quit. I was becoming the kind of teacher I hated as a kid…a bad one.

Add a scruffy no-good little first grader branded by the town as the “bad seed” and you get why I was in no way full of holiday cheer. Spitting snow and cold as hell I trudged through the parking lot and dragged up the steps and through the front doorway into school. Four days to go for the much-needed time off and I vowed to just stay low-key to avoid any unnecessary drama.


My fog lifted in a snap as I watched a little boy down the hallway go air born then hitting the hard floor below. Screaming first-graders were yanking on a scruffy kid and had him up in the air by his feet, clinging defiantly to the drinking fountain spigot. Torn from his death grip, he belly flopped on the hard tile floor below.

One of the bigger of the kids screamed, “You butted, you little bastard! You do this all the time!” Like grade school vigilantes the group nodded in unison and cheered the whooping on.

More than awake at this point, I rushed into the skirmish thinking the little kid would be bleeding and crying for my help. Just as I did my best “what’s going on here” the boy bounced up and tore into the mini-vigilantes like a Tasmanian devil. Punching, kicking, and scratching as many of them as he could, he lit out of there and escaped into his classroom down the way.

I could only think, “Why do little animals like this even get to be in school?” This wasn’t my first run-in with him, nor with one of his older siblings. I had his brother in class…long straggly hair, dirty worn clothes, skinny as a rail, and bearing one letter on each knuckle of both hands. It was a self-inscribed tattoo spelling F-U-C-K on his left fist, and Y-O-U on his right. Take the older one, multiply him by ten, and you get the younger one.

I didn’t report the incident because I knew it would do no good, nor would a call to his parents be worth the time. They were transients from California, renting a shack for a house, who came drunk to the only parent-teacher conference I had with them. They were almost bragging about how they “keep those kids in line” with switches and their fists if they had to…all the while breathing their alcoholic exhales my way.

Needless to say, I didn’t have any hope for these kids, especially the littlest one, and had gotten to the point that I didn’t care. Hell, for as many times that I had to deal with that little one in the hall or at lunch you’d think I would have known his name, but didn’t. In my mind I nicknamed him Chance, as in doesn’t-stand-a.

The last day of school before Christmas break came, and I was doing bus duty outside in the snow. Couldn’t wait to get inside and get the day over with so I could escape this hell hole of a career I’d not be in for too much longer.

The bus door opened, and the kids came piling down and out, some carrying some nice gifts for their teachers wrapped in all their Christmassy glory, and some, like Chance, holding nothing.

I spotted him, as usual, trying to shove a little girl from behind while she attempted to hold a present and her clarinet case without falling while getting from the bus to the ground. All of a sudden the little girl whirled her hard case at Chance and whapped him so hard that she knocked the little shit down. I thought, “Attagirl, that’ll teach him!” She proudly headed into school leaving him face down.

Just as I was about to go over to him for the usual yell match and attempt at disciplining him I saw that he wasn’t getting up, and was crying. I stooped down to see what the problem was and saw him clutching his tattered old coat and peering down into it. I parted his coat in fear that he had stuck himself with some hidden pocket knife, or worse to scare kids with later.

Inside was an ornament he apparently made all by himself from flour and salt…broken to pieces. Sobbing uncontrollably, Chance said, “This was for you.”

I went on to teach for 30 more years.



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