Carla’s Gift


You almost didn’t notice her in class. She was small for 7, and quiet; she didn’t cause trouble the way the boys did. Her features were plain, and her blond hair was cropped short in a raggedy, home-cut style vaguely reminiscent of the Little Prince. No matter what the time of year, she always wore the same assortment of faded cotton dresses, the same cheap sneakers. Her name was Carla.

(editor's note: "Carla's Gift" is a true story)

My specialty was behavioral disorders, although my class that year wasn’t a traditional class for emotionally disturbed youngsters. Most of my seven students — six boys and Carla — were simply victims of abject poverty.

All 73 youngsters in the old sandstone school building were in special education. The floor below me housed two preschool programs. Our floor had a class for mentally handicapped 6- to 9-year-olds taught by my colleague, Maia, and my own class.

Carla should have been in with Maia. The tests administered in kindergarten gave Carla an IQ of 69 — our school district rated any score below 70 as indicative of a mental handicap. But I had fewer students than Maia did, and Carla had a speech problem. By virtue of my interest in psychologically based language difficulties, I had become the school’s unofficial speech expert.

Carla’s talents were not many. She couldn’t read. She was hopeless at art. She couldn’t even stick the ends of paper strips together to make chains. And the simplest math activities defeated her.

“Here, see what I have here?” I said to her one morning, and laid out 12 wooden cubes. “Can you count these?”

“One, one, one...” she struggled.

I put a hand over hers and moved it along as I counted. “One, two, three..”

“Four, five six..” she continued alone, “seven, nine, ten, eleven...”

“Whoops, Carla, you left out eight. One, two...”

“Three, four, five, six, seven, nine...”

“Whoops, you’ve left out eight again. Here. Do it with me.” I covered her hand and moved it along the cubes.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. What comes after seven?”

“Eight,” she said. “Eight, eight, eight.”

“Good. Now you try it by yourself.”

Carla hesitated and then began. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, ten, eleven, twelve!”

“Whoops, Carla, you’ve left out nine....”

I tried to be understanding, but I didn’t have Maia’s patience working with such a slow student. With the boys’ clamoring for attention — their minds lively, if not sharp — I sometimes resented the time Carla required to learn something. I knew however much time I put in, I wouldn’t get much out of her. Carla just didn’t have much to give.

Christmas was a big event in our school. Because so many children came from poor families, many homes would have no tree and few presents. And with so many broken families, no festive gatherings.

We attempted to catch the best of the holiday spirit at school. We tried to emphasize simple pleasures — that there is more to Christmas (even to the secularized version we celebrated in school) than the gaudy commercialism presented on television. This inspired a good deal of creativity as we too were on a very limited budget.

One of the service clubs in town provided us with a large Christmas tree, which we erected in the gym and decorated with sugar cookies. Another provided a Santa Claus and a sackful of toys for our party on the last day before the Christmas vacation. The members collected secondhand toys every year and renovated them, so the gifts given out during the party were nice and, for many of the children, would likely be the only toys they received. As a consequence, we on the staff did our best to match the toys with appropriate children. The best way we found was to have the kids write letters to Santa.

My group, of course, was enthusiastic when letter-writing time came around. Mikey, a rather streetwise 6-year-old, snatched up his paper. “I know what I’m going to ask for. One of them four-wheel dirt bikes.”

“That’s too big for Santa to bring, don’t you think, Mikey” I asked. “He only has one sack to hold all the gifts. I doubt a dirt bike would fit.”

“Santa Claus is just a big fake-o anyway,” Nathan announced. Nathan was 8, and worldly.

I sat down beside Carla, who was having trouble copying “Dear Santa” from the blackboard. “What do you hope Santa brings you?” I asked.

“Red,” she said. “Red, red, red. Balloon. Birthday balloon.”

“A balloon?”

“Red balloon. Go up, up, up.”

“A balloon?” Nathan shouted. “You want just a balloon for Christmas? What a stupid idea!”

“Nathan! Shush!” I said to him.

“Birthday balloon,” Carla said. “Christmas Jesus birthday.”

“Yes, it is. That’s why we celebrate Christmas, isn’t it? But what would you like Santa to bring? A doll, perhaps? A game?”

“Red, red, red,” she said impatiently. “Birthday balloon.”

My aide, Rosa, who was working nearby with one of the boys, lifted her head and smiled sadly at me. Carla would be one of those children for whom there would probably be no celebration beyond what we offered at school. She had no father. Her mother’s boyfriend had just gone up for seven years in the penitentiary on drug charges. I realized that to Carla even a red balloon might seem an extravagance.

After school Rosa and I discussed the matter. “I’ll tuck a balloon in,” I said. “I think I have some left over from Nathan’s birthday.”

“I want her to get a nice present” Rosa said. “Maybe a little doll. Something to play with.”

On the afternoon of the party, the children were in a frenzy of excitement. At 1:30, Santa arrived, ho-ho-ho-ing his way into the gym and dragging an enormous bag full of presents. The children screamed with pleasure and surrounded him.

“This is really going to be good,” Rosa whispered. “I love this. I love seeing their expressions.” Sharing her enjoyment, I settled into a chair to watch. First one, then another of the children received their gifts, oohing as they opened them and running over to us to show them off.

“Here comes Carla’s,” Rosa said, as Santa Claus lifted out a big parcel and put it into Carla’s waiting hands. For several moments Carla did nothing but hold it out at arm’s length and regard the gift wrapping.

“Look at her,” Rosa said with affection. “She’s overwhelmed.”

Indeed, she appeared to be, so I got up and went over. “What have you got there?” I asked and knelt beside her. “Do you want to open it?”

Hunkering down on the floor, Carla ripped off the wrapping. Inside was a big brown teddy bear. “Oh, what a wonderful present!” I said.

Carla began to cry. “No balloon. No birthday balloon.”

“There’s a balloon here, sweetheart. Look . . .” I rummaged through the paper to pull out the red balloon we’d included with the bear.

“No.” Carla wept. “Birthday balloon go up, up, up.”

“I can blow it up. . .” I began, and then it dawned on me. “A helium balloon? You wanted one that floats?”

She nodded through her tears.

There were 35 minutes left to the school day. I turned to Rosa. “Can you keep track of things? I’m going to try to get Carla a helium balloon.”

“From where?”

“I don’t know. But I’ll be back before school lets out.” Grabbing the red balloon, I headed out to my car.

I tried the dime store, the drug store, the card shop and finally a gas station. Yes, the attendant said, they had helium: $53 for a small bottle, with a $20 deposit to insure that I brought the bottle back. “ I only want to blow up one balloon,” I explained. “Sorry,” he said. “ Come on,” I pleaded — “it’s Christmas.” At last he relented and filled the balloon for me. I raced back to school with it, just in time.

Carla’s face, when she saw the red balloon, made all my efforts worthwhile. She ran pell-mell across the gymnasium to fling her arms around my waist. I grabbed a discarded piece of ribbon and tied it to the balloon, then handed it to her. “Here you are. Santa forgot to bring this in for you.”

Smiling gloriously, she let the balloon float gently upward. “Birthday balloon,” she crooned. “Up, up, up.”

Then it was time to put on boots and coats, to collect goodies and go home. As I helped the boys get ready, Carla sat on the bench in the cloakroom and played with the balloon, letting it rise, pulling it down, letting it rise again.

“Carla, time to go.”

“Carla’s dorky,” Mikey said. “It’s just a balloon.”

“It’s because she’s nothing but a retard,” Nathan replied.

I gripped Nathan’s collar and spun him around the corner into the classroom to have a few words with him, but Carla still sat, oblivious, and played with her balloon.

After seeing the boys down to their rides, I returned to the cloakroom. “Carla, come on. Your bus is here.” I helped her on with her coat. “Here, get your scarf on, too. It’s cold out.” She watched the balloon bounce as she tugged the ribbon. “Let’s go. I’ll walk you down.”

“Birthday balloon,” she was murmuring to herself. “Happy birthday.”

Her bus was parked at the far end of the drive, but she didn’t hurry. She was holding the balloon in front of her and gazing up. Then, without warning, she let go. The breeze caught it and sailed it upward.

“Carla!” I cried in dismay. “ Now look what’s happened!” All that trouble I’d gone to, and she’d simply let the balloon go. I felt like yelling at her, Christmas or not.

But Carla only stood, watching the balloon rise high in the gray December sky. “Up, up, up,” she whispered. “Birthday balloon up in sky.”

“Yes, it’s up in the sky, all right,” I muttered gloomily.

“Happy birthday, baby Jesus,” she said. “Happy birthday.” And she turned to me and smiled.


Torey Hayden, "Carla’s Gift." from Christmas in My Heart, vol. 15 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), 167-176.

Compiled and edited by Joe L. Wheeler. Reprinted by permission of Joe L. Wheeler. All rights reserved.

Order Christmas in My Heart: A Treasury Of Timeless Christmas Stories, vol. 15 here.

Christmas in My Heart: A Treasury Of Timeless Christmas Stories, vol 14 here.

Find other Joe L. Wheeler books here.

Experienced editor and compiler Joe L. Wheeler brings a new collection of powerfully inspiring Christmas stories to the Christmas in My Heart series. These moving stories have become part of a Christmas tradition for thousands of families who have come to love their Christ-centered, love-filled message. This popular collectors series also features a collection of vintage woodcut and engraving illustrations.

Dr. Wheeler is one of the nation's leading story anthologizers. An aficionado of great stories for as long as he can remember, Wheeler is the editor/compiler of Great Stories/Classic Books collection by Focus on the Family/Tyndale House. He has also edited and compiled several other story anthologies — including Great Stories Remembered and Heart to Heart by Focus on the Family and Tyndale House; Christmas in My Heart by Review & Herald Publishing, Pacific Press, Doubleday, Tyndale House, and Focus on the Family; Forged in the Fire by Waterbrook/Random House; and Christmas in My Soul by Doubleday/Random House. Joe Wheeler's web site is here.


Torey Hayden began working with disadvantaged preschool children as a freshman in college and fell in love with it. She has written eleven books on the children she’s worked with and on the experiences she’s had over the years. She makes her home in the United Kingdom. Her web site is here.

Copyright © 2006 Tyndale House Publishers

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