A Gift I'll Never Forget

LINDA HUMMEL

He entered my life twenty years ago, leaning against the doorjamb of Room 202, where I taught fifth grade. He wore sneakers three sizes too large and checkered pants ripped at the knees.

Daniel, as I’ll call him, though that was not his real name, made this undistinguished entrance in the school of a quaint lakeside village known for its old money, white colonial homes, and brass mailboxes.

He told me his last school had been in a neighboring county. “We were pickin’ fruit,” he said matter-of-factly.

I suspected this friendly, scruffy, smiling boy from a migrant family had no idea he had been thrown into a den of fifth-grade lions who had never before seen torn pants. If he noticed snickering, he didn’t let on. There was no chip on his shoulder.

Twenty-five children eyed Daniel suspiciously until the kickball game that afternoon. Then he led off the first inning with a home run. With it came a bit of respect from the wardrobe critics of Room 202.

Next was Charles’s turn. Charles was the least athletic, most overweight child in the history of fifth grade. After his second strike, amid the rolled eyes and groans of the class, Daniel edged up and spoke quietly to Charles’s dejected back. “Forget them, kid. You can do it.”

Charles warmed, smiled, stood taller and promptly struck out anyway. But at that precise moment, defying the social order of this jungle he had entered, Daniel had gently begun to change things — and us.

By autumn’s end, we had all gravitated toward him. He taught us all kinds of lessons. How to call a wild turkey. How to tell whether fruit is ripe before that first bite. How to treat others, even Charles. Especially Charles. He never did use our names, calling me “Miss” and the students “kid.”

The day before Christmas vacation, the students always brought gifts for the teacher. It was a ritual — opening each department-store box, surveying the expensive perfume or scarf or leather wallet, and thanking the child.

That afternoon, Daniel walked to my desk and bent close to my ear. “Our packing boxes came out last night,” he said without emotion. “We’re leavin’ tomorrow.”

As I grasped the news, my eyes filled with tears. He countered the awkward silence by telling me about the move. Then, as I regained my composure, he pulled a gray rock from his pocket. Deliberately and with great style, he pushed it gently across my desk.

I sensed that this was something remarkable, but all my practice with perfume and silk had left me pitifully unprepared to respond. “It’s for you,” he said, fixing his eyes on mine. “I polished it up special.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment.

Years have passed since then. Each Christmas my daughter asks me to tell this story. It always begins after she has picked up the small polished rock that sits on my desk and nestles herself in my lap. The first words of the story never vary. “The last time I ever saw Daniel, he gave me this rock as a gift and told me about his boxes. That was a long time ago, even before you were born.

“He’s a grown-up now,” I finish. Together we wonder where he is and what he has become.

“Someone good I bet,” my daughter says. Then she adds, “Do the end of the story.”

I know what she wants to hear — the lesson of love and caring learned by a teacher from a boy with nothing — and everything — to give. A boy who lived out of boxes. I touch the rock, remembering.

“Hi, kid,” I say softly. “This is Miss. I hope you no longer need the packing boxes. And Merry Christmas, wherever you are.”

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Linda D. Hummel "A Gift I'll Never Forget." from Stories for a Teacher's Heart (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2002).

This story originally appeared in Family Circle magazine and is used by permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Linda Hummel has a BA in Education and two Master's Degrees, in Education and English. Her teaching experience is in elementary school and college English. Before becoming an Education Counselor at the Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1997, she worked as a freelance writer. Linda has three children, two of whom are in college.

Copyright © 2002 Linda Hummel




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