By Joan Larsen
Sometimes, a single story can change our lives. Though this personal tale takes place in the Christmas season, it is one that – once heard – is remembered forever. The glories of nature in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana would be hard to match. But in that wilderness live families whose stories break the heart. When the teachers of a single community there – as a whole – give not only their funds but their time to lift the lives and hearts of their pupils, I believe it is worth telling. My story is true. . . and is repeated every year now as more caring people give to see children well-clothed, proud for the first time. To me, it is a reminder of what the season should truly be about. That, combined with the caring and love, daily expressed to those children who often feel unloved, is already showing dividends in so many ways as the children grow. . . but the most obvious to all, the most telling and irresistible, smiles.
A clear December in Montana, last night’s storm has skidded east, leaving a meadow perfect with fresh snow. Twenty small children, twenty teacher-chaperones have gathered on this morning of mornings, floundering, falling in the snowdrifts. The six year olds jump the grownups, piling snowballs on their heads, making them behave like children again themselves, totally filled with the contagious laughter of the little ones.
This was to be the most special day of their year for these children – for they had been hand-picked for this outing of outings in their young lives. Montana’s Bitterroot Valley – deep, narrow, with snow-capped mountains on all sides and the Bitterroot River defining its boundaries – is sprinkled with a smattering of small towns and almost hidden outcroppings of cabins and trailers perched on steep slopes forested by pines. The valley is one of the most scenically beautiful in our country, but hidden in the trees everywhere are families living in poverty, with stories that would stun anyone who heard them.
Laughing children and teachers climbed on the yellow school bus that morning, heading north on the only paved road through the Bitterroot Range, rounding bends winding as a slinky, and looking out for the large population of suicidal deer, ready to end it all, lurking behind trees. (Not too long ago on this same road, my daughter’s car was totaled by a black bear appearing from nowhere and claiming the little highway as his own).
Imagine the Wild West. It hasn’t changed that much in this remote area. But, on this day, they were heading for Missoula, Montana, home of the university, and probably the largest city these children may ever get to see. For most it was to be their first time in “the big city”. It was going to be their “day of days” – and was to be for their chaperones also.
This story is a true story of Christmas – Christmas in the year of 2011 – as it should be lived. . . and the people who give their free time and their caring for these tiny tots out of sheer love. The faculty of this elementary school deep in the Valley had hand-picked the children – from grades one to three – for a Christmas shopping excursion. It was unbelievably difficult to pick out only 20 when over 40% of the school population lies below the poverty level. But these families were considered “most needy”. And there is only so much money. It always has been a difficult choice.
Some years back, a retired school teacher with a heart of gold began canvassing every store and business in the Valley, asking for donations. Poverty is no secret in these towns. Pay scales are low and many are living on government subsidies, but not a single business turned down her request for monies large enough to take a group of children – children who would otherwise have no Christmas at all – to the Super K-Mart in the sky in Missoula for a shopping day.
Parents were asked for lists of clothes the children needed. But then they were asked for a “wish list” if there was money left over. Each little boy and girl was able to spend – with their chaperone’s guidance – $185.
My own daughter – otherwise the school counselor – called me that day half weeping, half joyful as she told of her own little hand-picked charge – a second grader, Kayla. Unkempt, poor, troubled, with a father in prison and siblings at home, to Kayla the K-Mart was all the Disneylands rolled into one.
They began with the socks and underwear on the list. My Debra looked down to find her size. In this bitter cold, the child was wearing no socks. Kayla said she had two pair but “they were dirty.” “Let’s pick out some clothes and you can go into the dressing room by yourself and come out and model them for me.” Laden with outfits, Kayla bounded in. The curtain was soon half pulled open. “Mrs. E,” she said, “could you take the plastic off the bag of underpants and give me one? I don’t have any.”
This is a first hand look at the depths poverty can take.
Clothes were modeled, adored, and put in the shopping cart. Hairbrushes, barrettes, and toothbrushes were added to the growing pile as most of these children had been known to lack the basics.
The children were told that the last $15 spent was to be for presents the child picked out – presents that could be enjoyed by the whole family. This was the time of the greatest joy as Kayla deliberated and made choices for the first time. Her eyes were then full of laughter, fun, and dreams of the surprises she would give on Christmas Day to her family.
The management of K-Mart quietly made up the difference if the children ran over the totals planned. Even the cashiers had tears in their eyes when the little ones checked out their treasures.
The school district had provided a BIG bus so that each child would have 2 seats on the way back – one for the array of bags of clothes, and then – of course – the precious little presents that would be Christmas at their homes. But the WRAPPING? The teachers offered to bring wrapping paper and bows on the next school day. Any child who wanted could come in at lunch hour and they would wrap them together.
Rounding one of the last snow-covered bends on the road home, the principal passed out paper and pencils to them all. It is almost the new year, she said, and she asked them to write a wish. What to wish for? More snowball fights? More trips to the mall? Debra just wishes that their happy memories of this day will forever stay with them. She folded the paper with that wish and put it in her pocket, and moved with the others, beneath the big trees toward the mountains and home.
My own thoughts? Debra probably put it better than I ever could. It was a micro-season of happiness and the brief pleasure of knowing that this was a transforming moment in life. We do not own this world we are living in, she said, but are here briefly to care for it, treasure each other, and utilize our time to leave light and warmth behind in our wake.
The story really is the real meaning of Christmas. Give. Give in any way you can, of whatever you possess. To give is to love. Care less for your harvest than for how it is shared, and your life will have meaning and your heart will have peace.
And you will have left a trace. What could be better?
The air was filled with diamond sparks quite intangible.
They seemed just glitter and no more.
It was still and cloudless,
And the shapes of violet mountains
Were softened by a veil of the tenderest blue.
– Isabella Bird
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home”.