The Christmas Rooster

Grasping a jar filled with chicken feed in one hand and a leash attached to a feisty Rhode Island Red in the other, I fell totally exhausted onto the nearest chair by the classroom doorway. I sat there, sprawled out and semi-dazed, looking at the chaos of the aftermath of my first class’s Christmas party 40 years ago.

Only moments before, my 6th graders had rushed sprinting and bobbing down the hallway in high spirits to board the school bus which would drop them off for their Christmas vacation. As I began to regain my senses and a degree of strength, I wondered how I could unravel myself from this predicament.

Putting the classroom back in some semblance of order would be manageable, but what in the world would I do with this rooster? I had been intending to head home immediately after the kids left, planning to rest up from my first few months as a new teacher and, especially, to recuperate from the past few weeks of excitement and school-wide festivities leading up to the Christmas vacation.

The red and green construction paper chains lying in piles on the floor in front of me had been my first introduction to a public school’s pre-Christmas flurry of activities. Call me Scrooge, but once I realized that a small group of girls had gotten permission to stay inside for morning recess the whole previous week for the sole purpose of opening up a decorative paper chain production line, I put my foot down and brought the production line to a grinding halt, albeit too late. Nearly the class’s entire allotment of green and red construction paper for the year had already been stapled together into enough loops to wrap the classroom in Christmas chains twice around.

I called a class meeting and proposed that the class think seriously about doing something more positive for the Christmas season than cutting and stapling paper loops. Suggesting some form of community service, I was quite indignantly informed that the Girl Scouts had already visited the homes for the elderly and the Boys Scouts had spent the previous Saturday afternoon picking up trash in the center of the town. One eager young lady then proposed that we do Secret Santas. Not being of the Christian faith, I must admit that the only Santas I had been familiar with were the ones in the department stores and those that came down chimneys. (Years earlier, I, a little Jewish boy, had secretly prayed that one such Santa would miraculously slip incognito down our chimney and leave at least one big Chanukah present.)

I confessed that their Jewish teacher had no idea of what Secret Santas were; however, when the idea was explained to me, I thought it a grand one. Little did I know that it would result in my being left bewildered, holding a homeless rooster on the eve of the school vacation, in an otherwise deserted school.

Once I understood the concept, the kids insisted we begin then and there. So I cut a piece of scrap paper into 25 or so pieces. We emptied out a wastebasket and the children dropped their names in so they might choose the name of the classmate who would be the recipient of their kind deeds for the full week leading up to Christmas vacation. I also dropped my name in.

While the class was not a cliquey one, there were a few children who were on the fringes of the group. I was secretly hoping that some of the higher status kids would by chance select the names of those who tended to be left on the sidelines, especially Regina and Jimmy.

The kids became very excited about doing good deeds anonymously for another classmate, and appeared to be even more enthusiastic about buying a gift for that person for the Christmas party. While this was in the mid sixties when the “shop till you drop” mentality had not yet swept through the country, even then kids were more than eager to go shopping down town. Being an outsider myself, and also being one who thought Christmas was becoming overly commercialized, I insisted that the gifts be made or created by the Secret Santas. My decree was not received with great enthusiasm but as the week wore on, I could see that the idea had caught on.

I overheard kids whispering to friends about the surprises they were making at home--a paperweight with artificial snow, an illustrated diary, tie-dye shirts (very popular), a hand puppet, cigar box guitars, walkie-talkies and the like. Some of the children checked with me about the appropriateness of their gift ideas. When one boy suggested a grave stone rubbing from the 18th century graveyard only 30 yards beyond our classroom windows (the art teacher had introduced rubbings during a town history unit of study), I directed him towards something more cheery.

As creative and thoughtful as their gifts were, their kind deeds were even more so. Great pain was taken to conceal the identity of the givers. Pencils were secretly sharpened, classroom jobs were all miraculously done by elves, snacks and sweets were found waiting in one’s desk or locker, encouraging notes were slipped into unsuspecting coat pockets, help was forthcoming from a multitude of directions, be it with forgotten homework assignments, accompanying someone to the nurse’s office, or recommending a great Newberry Award book to read for an upcoming book project.

On the day before Christmas vacation, the children trickled into the classroom from the morning buses. An air of anticipation permeated their every word as they entered laden with bags of party goodies, struggling to keep their freshly wrapped Secret Santa gifts intact. I, the official greeter, was standing by the door when one of the stragglers, Jimmy, immediately caught my attention. Being the grandson of a New England poultry farmer, I instantly spotted the Rhode Island Red that he was leading behind him with an improvised rope leash. When I asked Jimmy in a soft voice why he had brought a visitor to school on that very hectic day, he caught me off guard replying, “Mr. L., it’s my Secret Santa gift!” I must have looked a little dubious. He explained that Red was one of his dad’s chickens that he had fed each morning before school for a long time now, that it was something he had done by himself--a Secret Santa gift he was very proud of and rightly so. The neediest child in our class had come up with an ingenious, thoughtful, personal gift for Christmas.

Later in the morning I took Jimmy aside and asked him to tell me who would be the recipient of Red. When I heard that it was Craig, I knew a change in plans might be in the works. So I called Craig’s mother during lunch and explained the situation. My gut feeling told me that Mrs. Wolf would not be enthusiastic about a rooster running around her freshly carpeted 10 room new home in a picturesque wooded section of our rural/suburban town. She couldn’t have been sweeter or more understanding but there was no question of the rooster roosting in the Wolfs’ home. She suggested that another student might have a backyard shed or small barn and might like to take the rooster home for the holidays.

Being realistic, I knew I would have no takers for Red and would have to come up with another plan. Amidst the confusion of the day, I was stymied. I certainly didn’t want Jimmy to have his gift rejected outright so I spoke privately to Craig and Jimmy and explained the situation. They both understood and at the same moment a solution popped into my mind. Craig and I would exchange our Secret Santa gifts at the end of the day and I would find a home for Red. Jimmy’s face lit up, proud that his teacher would be taking his Red home.

Jimmy went home for Christmas with his cigar box guitar, Craig went home with a pair of hand made ear muffs intended for the teacher, and I shuffled down the dimly lit hallway with a Christmas rooster trailing behind me. I called my wife from the office and asked her to pick me up, as well as an unexpected surprise guest.

Red and I were rescued shortly after we returned to the classroom by Mr. Chapman, our school custodian. He was drawn to my room from the far end of the building by the light spilling into the hallway. Chappie, as he was endearingly called by all the kids and teachers, was a part-time farmer as well. He quickly sized up the situation and jumped in to help. Without hesitation, he took Red under his wing and home for Christmas.

That was my first and last Christmas rooster. However, the thoughtfulness and kindness that the Secret Santas and Christmas Red inspired continues to be remembered to this very day, a few days before Christmas 2005.

For those still wondering, Red did not become Christmas stew.

Excerpted from:
Teaching as an Act of Love: Thoughts and Recollections
of a Former Teacher, Principal and Kid © 2007 Richard Lakin