Happy Xmas, Sir

The year was 1969, my first year of teaching. The last day of the school year at Doornfontein Primary had arrived. Everyone in my standard two (grade four) class was excited. At 12pm the bell would ring shrilly to announce the start of the December holidays.

The school was in a poor community. When the children’s parents received their annual bonuses most of the money was used to pay for items that had been bought “on tick” from the local shops. There was seldom enough money left over for families to have a holiday anywhere beyond Johannesburg’s mine dumps.

When I entered the classroom on that memorable last day the children were buzzing around the teacher’s table, which was on a raised wooden platform (in those ancient days children really did look up to the teacher). There were cards and gifts on the table – all but one in festive season wrapping. A few were adorned with ribbons. The one exception was a small gift wrapped in plain brown paper. It seemed to have been deliberately tucked under the others.

I thanked the children for their kindness and told them that the cards and gifts would be opened later. At this point 10-year-old Patrick informed me that the presents should be opened immediately. Patrick announced: “It’s the right way to do things. We all want to see what Sir got.”

Patrick’s cheerful, disarming manner was persuasive. Reluctantly I began to open the presents, concerned that there might be a child who didn’t want his or her gift opened in front of everyone.

While I was busy I caught Angie’s anxious and imploring eyes. Angie, an only child whose mother was a cashier at OK Bazaars, always seemed to wear hand-me-down clothes. Mouse-like in class, she was quiet and timid. The children crushed around the teacher’s desk. Angie’s eyes seemed to plead with me: “Don’t open my present in front of the class.”

Which, I wondered, was Angie’s present? Patrick’s lively voice brought me back to the task of opening the cards and gifts. I exclaimed with delight as I opened the third gift of cheap aftershave. The children had also given me enough boxes of handkerchiefs to cope with a major flu epidemic.

I could still feel Angie’s eyes boring into me. When I glanced at her, her pale lips were quivering. Tears were welling in her eyes. Again I looked at the presents. Which one was Angie’s? I put a hand on a present and furtively looked at her. That wasn’t the one. Then I put my hand on another. Angie shook her head dismissively. I rested my hand on the gift in brown paper. I gave Angie a glance. She gave a little gasp and a shy smile. Her gift had been found.

Angie’s tiny gift could be held in the palm of my hand. As discreetly as possible, I put my hand over it. At that moment there was a knock on the classroom door. All heads turned. A boy had come in to give a message to his younger sister. I quickly popped the brown paper-wrapped gift into the drawer. Phew – Angie gave me a gentle smile of happiness and relief.

When the final bell of the school year rang there were handshakes, hugs and hoorays. The children were free at last, as was the teacher. Within minutes silence settled over the classroom.

In the quietness I wondered about Angie’s gift. How could she or her mother afford to buy a present? I opened the teacher’s drawer and felt among the clutter. I grasped the present and put it on the table. It was wrapped in the brown paper used by butchers to wrap meat. There were faint bloodstains on the paper.

I gently unwrapped the gift, releasing a pungent, carbolic-like smell…it came from a bar of red Lifebuoy soap. There was also a handmade card. On the outside Angie had drawn a picture of an angel. Inside she had drawn a picture labelled “Sir”…he was wearing his corduroy jacket. The picture was framed with little crosses and stars. She had painstakingly written in her neatest handwriting: “Happy Xmas, Sir. Lots of love, Angie.”

The school year had ended in a touching, beautiful and unforgettable way.

Richard Hayward is a retired headmaster. He conducts school workshops on behalf of the Quality in Education Unit of Saqi (South African Quality Institute). The institute’s telephone number is 012 349 5006.

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