When It Is Truly Better to Give Than to Receive

This is the time of the year when many people worry about their weight, fearing that the obligatory feasting occasioned by Thanksgiving can mean additional unwanted pounds.  However, as the poet says,

    “Stuff your gut with tons of food,
    And then collapse while muscles pound.
    Don’t claim Thanksgiving’s the reason,
    You eat this way all year ’round.”
                    —Mad Magazine

As we enter that period of the year known as the holiday season, I look back to the days of my youth with fond remembrance for a time past.  There is one memory that stands out from all the rest, however, a memory of someone for whom I was able to impart a feeling for Christmas that I have no doubt is with him to this day. The story begins when I was in the eighth grade, right after we returned from being off on Thanksgiving, while we were all still flush with the warmth of a day spent with friends and family. Our homeroom teacher announced that we would have a Christmas party, in which gifts would be exchanged anonymously.  We drew names out of a hat, a Santa’s hat if I recall, and the one I picked was that of a fellow named Kenny.  The teacher instructed us that the gift was to cost less than $1.00.

Even though that was back in the day when a dollar was a dollar, this limit constituted something of a challenge, for there was not much one could buy for less than a buck.  The weeks went by, and nothing I came across in any of the department stores seemed appropriate.  With the deadline just three days away, I happened to go into a convenience store after school to get a Coke, and there on the rack was my last best hope:  a three-dimensional, paint-by-numbers dog, brush and paint included, for just 99¢.  I bought it, took it home and wrapped it, and at school the next day, I slipped it under the tree.

The day of the party arrived, which was held in the cafeteria, and the gifts were doled out accordingly.  I remember getting a belt kit:  a bunch of individual pieces of material that, when properly strung together, would hold your pants up.  We all know how kids feel about getting clothes for Christmas, but that didn’t bother me.  Having spent three weeks searching for a present myself, I appreciated the gift-giver’s resourcefulness in finding anything for less than a dollar that would pass muster.

Other students were not quite so forgiving.  There was a grim silence at one table, and grumbling at the next, but any delight at having received a splendid gift was nowhere to be heard.  One kid, with a miniature harmonica clutched in his hand, was storming up and down, swearing an oath of vengeance:  “I’ll kill him!  I’ll kill him!”  As I viewed this disturbing display of wrath, I was aware of someone sitting down at my table, right across from me.  It was Kenny.

I should note that Kenny and I were not friends.  In fact, he had never spoken to me before, as best I can remember.  But there he was.  He tossed the three-dimensional, paint-by-numbers dog on the table, and, just as if we were old pals, said, “Would you look at this?  Can you believe anyone would give somebody a present this dumb?”  I shook my head as if in disbelief, while commiserating with his misfortune.  Now, you might think that my feelings were hurt by this callous disparagement of my present, but, inasmuch as I was something of a nerd, I was actually flattered that it never it occurred to him that I might be the culprit.  In any event, I was not about to disabuse him of his presumption.

Not long after that, my father was transferred, and we moved far away. There, in another city, I spent the bulk of my high school years.  Then, in my senior year, just after Thanksgiving, we moved back, and found an apartment in the same neighborhood as before.  I registered in the nearby high school, and, as the homerooms were still organized alphabetically, I recognized many of the students from the eighth grade, although if any of them recognized me, they were not letting on.

Except Kenny.  “John, did you used to live here before?” he asked, as I took the seat the teacher assigned to me.  “Yeah.  In the eighth grade,” I replied. And that was the second time he had ever spoken to me.

The following week, the homeroom teacher stood up in front of the class, and asked, “Do we want to have a Secret Santa Christmas party in which we exchange gifts after drawing names?”  She assumed, along with most of the other students in the class, that there would be a discussion on the subject, perhaps followed by a vote, all democratic like.

“No!”  Kenny said loudly, shaking his head back and forth.  “We are not going to have another one of those Christmas parties.  When I was in the eighth grade, I got a gift that was dumb.  I mean, it was really DUMB!  And I don’t want to ever do that again.”  Neither the teacher nor any of the students dared contradict him.  And so, there was no party that year.  And that was too bad. Because maybe, just maybe, I could have drawn his name again.  And maybe, just maybe, I could have found another paint-by-numbers dog.

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