by Forrest Brandt
The kids rolled in, more excited than they had been on the first day of school back in August. They struggled with coats, scarves, boots, and gloves, then ran up to my desk to plunk down gifts: plates of homemade cookies, a couple of best-selling paperbacks, bottles of wine more expensive than the kind we kept in our house, a silver money clip with my initials engraved in an old English font and topping it off, a liter of Chivas Regal scotch. The opening bell and announcements had not begun and already the top of my desk was covered with holiday loot.
I was in my first year of teaching – first grade in Newtown Elementary, a school with a decided split in prosperity, big homes in a section named Turpin Hills, small houses and apartments on the Little Miami flood plain down below. I read to them, then moved through a quick math lesson, morning recess, reading groups, and lunch.
The day had started cold but with a bright sun. By noon the weather was turning. Massive gray clouds loomed in the west, pushed toward us by a steady wind. The air turned damp all signs pointing to snow. I grabbed my heavy woolen jacket, pushed my collar up around my neck, pulled on my gloves, and headed out for after-lunch playground duty.
A group of kids huddled and shivered near the doors to try and escape the wind, but most ran rosy-cheeked around the frozen field, whooping and hollering, tired of being cooped up all morning and excited knowing that the Christmas party would begin shortly after recess.
No point in standing still and having your feet freeze, so I moved around, listening to the frozen grass crunch beneath my shoes. I checked my watch, only five minutes to go. That’s when I felt a small hand pat the middle of my back, I turned and there stood Michael, hands behind his back. Mike was one of the floodplain kids who often walked home for lunch. He looked up and said, “I got you a present Mr. Brandt. Can I give it to you now?”
“Sure,” I answered.
Mike looked up, right arm thrust forward. There in his hand was something wrapped in white tissue.
I accepted the gift and pulled the paper back. “It’s a stone, Mr. Brandt. A special stone, I found it down by the river this summer,” he said, gesturing with his arm and pointing in the direction of the Little Miami. “It’s my favorite.”
I pulled off my gloves and held the stone. Dark brown and shaped like the end of an arm or leg bone, it had been split by something or someone. The bottom side was smooth and glossy. What kind of rock was it? I asked myself, instantly regretting not paying more attention in Geology 416 back in my undergrad days.
“Thank you very much, Mike,” I said. “I can see it is a very special rock.” I rubbed it a few times and then stuck it in my jacket pocket. “Come on, let’s join the rest of the class and head back in.”
I read to the class again to quiet them down, then gave them some drawing paper and free time to color. Green trees and red Santas left little doubt as to what was on their minds. The room mothers came in with cookies, ice cream, and fruit juice. More presents appeared on my desk. The classroom buzzed with energy and little bodies wiggled like puppies. Finally the bus announcement came over the PA and the energy and noise flowed out of the room as if someone had pulled the stopper on a bathtub.
I packed my loot into my car, wished the other teachers happy holidays, and drove home. Kathy, who taught in a junior high in Kentucky, arrived a few minutes after me and we began to compare gifts. A quick assessment showed that junior high teachers were held in nowhere near the esteem of first-grade teachers, cookies and a small box of chocolates were the extent of her gifts. Meanwhile, my wine collection had doubled and there were enough tens and twenties for a couple of good restaurant meals over the break, maybe four if we went to Captain Billy’s on Ludlow for fish sandwiches and beer. The scarf and the books went under the tree and the Chivas sat like a shrine on the kitchen countertop.
Almost an afterthought, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out Mike’s stone. “And then during recess, one of my kids hands me this.” I told her the story, but my tone was one of amusement. I understood that not everyone in my class could afford a bottle of wine, much less a liter of Chivas, “…but he wanted to give me a gift of some kind, so this was it. He told me it was a special stone.”
Kathy was on the verge of tears, “It’s a special stone! That’s the best gift you received.” She held the stone in her hand, rubbing it and turning it over to feel the slick bottom. “That little boy cared enough to give you something only he could give, not something his parents bought, or his mom baked.”
She was right and I was ashamed that I hadn’t accepted the full value of the gift. She took the stone and walked over to the mantle where we had set up a crèche, placing it next to the crib.
Forty-six Christmases later the wine is gone, the Chivas made it a little past my February birthday. The money clip sits unused, and the scarf went to Goodwill a few years after I received it. What remains is Mike’s rock, still taking its place of honor next to the crib in our crèche. A very special stone, a Christmas Stone.
Photo courtesy of Forrest Brandt.