Every Tuesday and Thursday evening on my way to work I stop and sit on this community park bench. There is a fountain, small shops with signs, and small shops that townspeople know so well there is no need for signs. A saxophone player, Joe, plays for his dinner as people walk by and throw coins into his saxophone case. Today he is playing Christmas music. Close to him is a Nativity scene someone took great care in creating. The ceramic figures are pristine: Baby Jesus in the manger, Mary’s hand gently touching His head, and the Wise Men with gifts.
Tonight the fountain is silent. No water. Winter has descended on the town. I sit with a long coat, a scarf, mittens, taking it all in before I head to work teaching at a vocational college. I am relatively new in this place. As I walk to my car, I smile as I remember the human resources director looking at my address and saying: “Wow, I hope someone warned you: that’s the wrong side of the tracks.”
The phrase stuck with me. I had the smallest apartment affordable. Life had changed. Driving to work, I saw old houses, children playing, and mobile home community exits. It did not look like the wrong side of the tracks at all! If it was, I was a resident: living from paycheck to paycheck as I consistently saw medical bills arrive. I often received letters from my parents that always contained a check for “just in case,” and there was always a “just in case.”
I pick up my purse to begin my drive to work just as a breeze brings an unexpected weather surprise: snow! I breathe in the winter air. Beautiful! I stand listening to Joe play “Silent Night.”
Then I hear a child’s voice: A little girl stands right in front of the Nativity display. A young woman with a long wool coat and small bag of groceries holds the hand of a little girl, probably 5, wearing a powder-blue fuzzy coat and mittens. The breeze blows again as I hear the child’s words: “But He’s cold! Jesus is cold! Mom, we can’t leave Him like this!”
I take a step forward and stop. What’s stopping me?
The young mother kneels in front of her daughter: “Lily, we just got you this coat. Mrs. Glenn may not have another one this color. It’s cold. He’s warm right here.”
But the little girl shakes her head and unzips her powder-blue coat, revealing a light sweater, and enters the Nativity scene, making sure the coat covers the lifelike doll meant to give us a visual image of Jesus in the manger. Her mother watches, and once done, she opens her own coat, wrapping her daughter in it, sharing the scarf. After picking up her groceries, she heads the same direction they came from. I hear her say, “What am I going to do with you, sweet girl?” The little girl snuggles her head between her mother’s neck and the scarf and says: “He’s my friend. I love Him.”
I watch them enter an unmarked lighted store with holiday lights on the window. I walk toward the Nativity scene. I bend down and inspect what Lily has done. The coat wraps the doll, with corners tucked inside the manger.
“It’s like she’s the fourth Wise Man,” says Joe.
Does he know them? He tells me mom and daughter catch the bus home, over the tracks, from this corner to a mobile home park. The mother works as a server. He points at where they went, Mrs. Glenn’s House, a secondhand clothes shop. People donate clothes, and she gives them to those who need them.
I look at the coat bundling the doll. Will she get another coat? “She’s a good child; and it would be a shame if we took that coat off the doll. It would take the gesture away from her. Mrs. Glenn will help her,” Joe says, and begins to play music again.
I reach my classroom. I teach nontraditional students. I am younger than most of them. They come to school straight from work, improving their skills, eager to provide better for their families. They work hard; we learn and laugh together. As I watch them settling in, I wonder for the first time: Do they live on the wrong side of the tracks? Do they visit Mrs. Glenn’s for coats or mittens? I realize something important: this season full of lights, celebrations, gifts, music, laughter, family, joy, is not the same for all. Lily showed me that.
The four-hour class begins. At the mandatory break I grab my coat and walk outside. I sit in my favorite bench and feel the snow under my boots. One of my students, A.J., approaches and asks if he can join me. A.J. is 70 years old. He works in the steel plant and is training to be a certified welder in order to bring home more money. He places a thermos next to him, and I unscrew the cap for him. He thanks me and holds the warm thermos between his calloused hands, looks at the stars quickly being hidden by the clouds, and speaks to me as if nature—the beautiful night—has inspired him to do so.
My dad left us on a Christmas Day, all five of us.
“I started working when I was 13 years old. My dad left us on a Christmas Day, all five of us. We never heard from him again. The Depression was happening, and my mother had children to feed. It was winter, and we needed wood. So I went to a neighbor’s farm and asked him to teach me how to split wood. He did. In five hours I had so many blisters. When he asked where I planned to use this skill, I said I would find a place. Everyone needs wood now, right? He went into the house, came back with oversized gloves. He needed help bundling wood for sale. Could I work? He gave me two coins and a bundle of five fire logs. I ran down the street and bought a loaf of bread and a block of cheese for my family. That night we ate like kings. We laughed for the first time in a long time. We didn’t care that we were poor; we were together and warm.”
I stay still and quiet.
“Professor, you taught us communication all these weeks. I saw you today as I was walking to school. I saw the little girl give up something precious. I’m not a scholar; I move steel for a living. But on the walk here I remembered that loaf of bread and block of cheese, and I thought: My professor is right: communication comes in many different shapes and forms. If we know how to do it right, why not use it to make our space, ourselves, those around us, the world a better place?”
Somehow the story of the little girl has spilled into our classroom, and all of a sudden a warmth envelopes our wintery cold classroom. I hear of other families struggling through the holidays. Thirteen families are listed. Something should be done. In a moment my students have started a list of locations, items to be gifted, needs the families have. I don’t stop them. This is communication, humanitarian, heavenly-inspired communication. I pull up a chair and simply listen.
Lisa, my most organized student, gives everyone a task. We agree to meet on Sunday, take over a boardroom, and prepare the humble gifts and homemade stockings filled with trinkets. We will prepare everything in the morning and deliver it at night.
On the drive home I am humbled at how those who have less are most willing to give. As my car rolls over the tracks I am proud to enter this space I call home, right in the middle of the wrong side of the tracks.
I need to see Mrs. Glenn.
I enter Mrs. Glenn’s store. At a distance I see a woman: Mrs. Glenn? Yes. I waste no time. I tell her about the powder-blue coat. I ask if there are any children’s coats I can purchase. She looks at me curiously as I lay out a piece of paper my students helped me write with sizes for coats. I tell her I will pay for scarfs and mittens as well; I just need help finding these. I am ready to use my “just in case” money. She motions for me to follow her.
“Let me tell you why I do this,” she says i
n a kind voice. A long time ago she was struggling to make ends meet. Poor and single, she had to keep her children warm and fed. When her children outgrew their clothes, she would hand them to others and barter on the sizes. Now she gives clothes away, and people bring her donations. She touches my hand and says: “I don’t know how it works, but somehow it turns out we never lack anything.”
She walks me through the small two-story house. Her daughter joins us, and the three of us pick coats, scarfs, mittens, and wool caps to match. Mrs. Glenn carefully pins the name and measurement for each coat so I will wrap them properly.
The treasures are placed in my car. I owe her something. She smiles and says: “This morning as the snow came down I looked out the window and could barely make out the train tracks, but I saw the lights and wondered how many homes were warm. I prayed that God would find a way to use me, a way to be a blessing. I think God gives you these experiences so you will share them, Professor.” She hugs me tight, and I sob a bit.
“Don’t ever forget, or be too busy, to help others. At the most joyous time of your life, someone is praying for a miracle. Be that miracle. Give hope.”
Sunday morning, tables are filled items to fill stockings, gifts to wrap. I watch as students wrap each item individually, labeling them. Working together, they talk about their own Christmas traditions. As we head out to surprise the families, I see A.J. walk in a different direction. Where is he going?
At the first home my student Lisa heads the caravan. As the knock is answered, we all yell “Merry Christmas,” and take over their living room. Children, surprised parents, everyone is happy! Everyone is talking and placing gifts on the table. There are no bright ribbons or beautiful wrapping paper, just paper bag coverings with string.
As the knock is answered, we all yell “Merry Christmas,” and take over their living room.
Just then there is a knock on the door. There stands A.J. with a small three-foot plastic Christmas tree. “Who needs a tree for all those?” he points at the gifts. He works with the children to elevate the tree, shows them how to create a popcorn and candy chain (supplies he also brought). Cookies, hot chocolate, hugs, and goodbyes are offered. Families will arrange items their way. Thirteen houses in one night.
Back at the school everyone scatters to go home. I drive to the first stop sign, and I see it: the lights, the sound, the barricade: a train is coming through. For six months I have never seen a train on these tracks! I laugh and remember Mrs. Glenn’s words: “At the most joyous time of your life, someone is praying for a miracle.” As the train moves, I talk to God: “Please bless my students’ homes and their families. Breath of heaven, be near us, hold us together.” The train has passed, I move forward.
I have been home for 10 minutes when the doorbell rings.
“Merry Christmas!” There they are: my students.
“You may need one of these.” I turn to see A.J. carrying a tree that we will decorate together. As he hands me the tree, he takes off his gloves, and I notice the blisters. He chopped wood and bartered for the trees.
A cup of hot cider, and A.J. makes a toast: “To all our trials, our sorrows, our losses, and tears; because they taught us the value of saying to others, ‘You don’t have to walk this path alone.’ Here’s to communicating love and shining Christ’s light into the darkest corner of life.”
We eat, decorate the tree, talk, tell stories, and the sun comes up on our friendships.
From wherever my students came, being across the tracks was not the dangerous direction for our lives. Holiday lights carefully decorating the town in lieu of Christmas trees, no fireplaces on which to hang Christmas stockings, and memories made are just that, because a camera is a luxury. Still, we had more than everyone else: we had one another.
I’ve had many Christmases after that one. Yet that particular one was filled with more hugs, more tears, more gratitude, more happiness, more humanity, more loss, more sorrow. For this I am grateful to God.
Dixil Rodríguez, a college professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas. The article, which was first published in December, 2015, received an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press.