Thanks to the encouragement of Tom Mc Guire, my good friend and co-director of EducateTheWholeChild, I’m back to writing again on a regular basis. This week’s offering is about the time I was called upon to play Santa at a very special assembly at my school. From the unique vantage point of Santa’s throne, I gained a bittersweet insight about the life of my students, and about my spiritual purpose as a teacher.
If you appreciate my particular practice of the teaching craft, I promise Tom and you more reflections next week, the week after that… and for as long as this organic farm yields food for thought.
A Swath of the South Bronx
The last day before Christmas vacation, 2006, he made an appearance in our elementary school on Prospect Street, just a short jog away from the police station once tagged, “Ft. Apache, the Bronx.”
This southeastern section of the borough includes our country’s poorest congressional district— a swath of geography described by Jonathan Kozol in his 1995 study, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation as “the largest racially segregated concentrations of poor people in our nation.” A significant indicator of poverty, 84.2% of our children qualified for free lunch.
Santa Claus came to PS 130 beckoned by then principal, Danny Garcia, who would have gone to the North Pole in person for his kids. He didn’t have to go that far.
I was teaching my second grade drama class when the door suddenly swung open and Mrs. Robinson came back from her break, early. “Mr. Garcia wants to see you in his office.”
I couldn’t help but feel the thud, thud of my heart. “What about?”
My principal immediately got down to business. “We’re calling an assembly for the whole school in 15 minutes, and I need you to be Santa Claus.” My heart plunged into a second round of thud, thudding.
“But,” I tried to explain to him, “You know… I’m not an experienced actor. I came into drama from teaching junior high school English…”
He did not look up, but motioned for Evelyn Hernandez to hand me the super-sized, oblong box.
The Reluctant Actor Plays His Part
When he told me to use the children’s lavatory down the hall to change, I asked Mrs. Hernandez to wait outside, to make sure the coast was clear before I came out in character. “Put your own clothes in the box, and we’ll keep them in Mr. Garcia’s office.”
Inside, I took a deep breath and summoned my courage. A voice inside me kept pounding, “I don’t want to do this!… I don’t want to do this!…” but reluctance was not an option. I quickly took off my clothes, and filled Santa’s suit. Pausing for a moment at the bathroom door, I cleared my throat, then straightaway stepped out into the hallway.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hernandez, Merry Christmas! — And have you been a good girl this year?”
It wasn’t long before I was sequestered backstage while Beth Franco, our Assistant Principal, emceed the program, calling up different classes to sing as Mr. Hudson conducted them from the piano.
Mr. Garcia was not one to get up much before his staff or students. On this occasion, however, he was front and center to get a good view of the kids’ faces. At his direction, the curtains opened and Santa’s empty chair stood festooned at center stage, between two elves— Mrs. Hernandez and La Verne Harris, our other reading coach.
Big black plastic bags contained brand new toys donated by a wealthy childhood friend of Danny’s. The piles of bags were sorted according to gender and grade. All I had to do was take a present from the elf on my left for a boy, or the elf on my right for a girl. The women, as usual, had everything perfectly organized.
Mr. Garcia’s voice was usually soft, and it was only slightly more powerful projected into that packed auditorium. I had to strain very hard backstage to listen for a solid cue— fearful of coming out too soon and stepping on my boss’ lines, or of pausing too long and making him hang where my entrance should have been. Fortunately, his voice rose to the occasion, just enough for me to hear, “…all the way from the North Pole” and then, “…now parked on our rooftop.”
But when that time came to go out, it was not Danny Garcia’s intro, after all, that signaled my grand entrance— it was the collective gasp of the audience after he announced, “SANTA CLAUS!” that created a vacuum and sucked me out from the wings right to center stage.
“Merry Christmas boys and girls! And Happy Chanukah and Kwanzaa, too— HO! HO! HO!”
Mrs. Franco called up the school, room number by room number.
As the children’s procession formed below me, I resolved to look deeply into the eyes of each and every child, and to imagine my own heart extending into the physical space between us.
Teaching as a Spiritual Activity
The giving and receiving began, and that rhythm would be uninterrupted, class-after-class, grade-after-grade, until the entire school had passed by, and through, me. The little kids came first, and I observed so many of them more disoriented than delighted— so tentative among their more outgoing and robust classmates. Only two of my second graders even knew me. My sly 4th graders, of course, had to blurt out that they were not fooled. “You’re Mr. Katzoff. We know you’re not Santa Claus!”— to which I could only reply with the truth: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
It was an ideal position to observe the jovial, good-natured, appreciative, and engaged majority. Still, I was taken back by how many of our kids came to Santa Claus like forlorn little sad sacks, depressed, burdened, disaffected— even as they were being given presents to take home.
We should have started out with the big kids. Those ten and eleven year olds desperately needed the Santa love— and I wish I could have shared it with them when the magic was flowing.
But by the time the line had come to the 5th graders, the cumulative effect of so many little doses of dejection, the mini melancholics— had finally brought me down. From heart pain to thoughts about unjust realities, that sociological turn of mind of mind threw me off my spiritual center. I stumbled out of character. With no actual magic to share, all I could do was to look sincerely into each youngster’s face and smile through world-weary eyes.
Every Christmas ever since, I’ve recalled what it was like to sit in that Santa chair, at peace and on purpose, a moment in my teaching career when I was released from Duty— planning, covering, organizing, timing, supervising— all the urging, all the assessing. None of my professional responsibilities sat with me in that chair. I just sat back and felt the love in my heart for each and every child at PS 130, one at a time. My only responsibility was create a loving space between us, un-distracted, even within the realities of destitution.
As the school drama teacher, I acted the part of Santa, but no longer felt it from the inside out. My greater failure came as a would-be spiritual scientist, who was conducting an experiment in spreading love throughout a given student population. I got sidetracked and ended up abandoning the experiment midway.
What might have happened if I had succeeded in completing the circuit of love from Danny Garcia to his benefactor to the organizers of that assembly, to all the children in the school? What miracle might have happened on Prospect Street that year, if only Santa Claus had stayed just a little while longer?