Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Of Love and Lunchboxes- A Christmas Story

   




 A pair of weathered hands skillfully guided the wheel of the old 1979 Ford F-100 as the older gentleman pulled into the parking lot of the elementary school. As the steering wheel rebounded to its more central position, the rhythmic clicking of the turn signal ended abruptly and left in its wake the smooth purring of the engine as the vehicle pulled easily into a vacant parking space. Afternoon visits to pick up his grandson at school had become the older gentleman’s recent routine, but he had been asked by the boy’s teacher to come a little earlier than usual on that particular day so that she could make him aware of a situation that had arisen recently. She had assured him that his grandson had done nothing wrong and there existed no cause for alarm, but she nonetheless wished to discuss the issue with him and felt that it would be best to discuss it in person.

   Having pulled completely into the parking space the gentleman, with a twist of the key, silenced the engine and took his foot off of the clutch and brake. He then gazed around the interior of the old truck as if it were a trusted friend. He had often told himself that if he had been endowed with the gift of writing, he could probably have made his fortune telling the stories that the old vehicle had witnessed. The truck’s history delved deep enough to have known his own daughter when she was the same age as his grandson. If he was brave enough to allow the past to resurface, he could still see the image of her sitting on the passenger portion of the long bench seat, her hair up in a ponytail and dressed in a simple cotton dress. In her hand was a fountain drink from the local convenience store as it was always his tradition to buy her a treat when they would ride together. The older gentleman had always tried to take care of the truck and he felt that somehow it had taken care of him and his daughter in return.  

    Reaching out and pulling the door handle, the truck door swung open on its well-greased hinges as his boots simultaneously swung out to contact the dusty gravel of the parking lot. He gently eased the door closed as he enjoyed the pristine sensation of the cool December wind as it brushed across his face. He could hear the sound of many children’s voices emanating from the nearby playground. The side  entrance to the school was on the far side of the parking lot and he began to make his way in that direction. His grandson’s teacher had informed him that her classroom number was 102 and that it was located only a short distance down the hallway on the left after passing through the side entrance door. As he approached the door, he could see that the glass windows of the door and most of those of the classrooms along the side of the school had been decorated with handmade Christmas decorations and he found himself stopping at the door to admire the children’s handiwork. Christmas had always been his favorite time of year, even though this year’s celebration would be much different. He then turned the door handle and went inside. As he did so, his senses were met with the distant but familiar scent of pencil shavings, chalk, and paper products. The children were at recess and so the hallways and classrooms were temporarily vacant. Just as had been described to him, classroom 102 was just down the hallway on the left. The classroom door was standing open and so he leaned forward to gaze inside.

   Seated at her desk was a distinguished appearing young woman who was busily grading papers. Her head was crowned by wavy auburn colored hair which would likely have flowed across her shoulders but which was prevented from doing so by a well-placed hair clasp. The chalkboard  was outlined by a green Christmas garland accented by a strand of colored lights. A small Christmas tree adorned the far side of her desk and her bulletin board was decorated in similar fashion as the rest of the school with multiple Christmas projects displayed proudly within its borders. The reds, greens, blues, and silvers of the decorations all seemed to enhance the welcoming sensation that already existed in the room. He knocked gently on the door frame and she immediately greeted him with a smile and motioned for him to come and have a seat directly in front of her. 

   “I really appreciate you coming in at this time,” she began after apologizing for the small size of the classroom seats. “My school day ends everyday with recess so it gives me a few minutes to myself.” 

   He responded that his visit was no inconvenience at all. 

   “First of all,” she continued on a solemn note. “I want to extend my condolences on the loss of your daughter. I can only imagine how painful that must be.”

   The pain of the recent, tragic phone call burst from hiding, threatening to overwhelm him. 

   “It was not easy,” he responded. “Learning suddenly that you’ve lost both your daughter and son-in-law.”

   “If it is any consolation,” she responded. “I am very pleased that you chose to take in your grandson.”

   “Of course. I’m all he’s got.”

   “And he’s very fortunate that he has you.”

   The older gentleman‘s facial expression indicated appreciation for the sentiment, but simultaneously some doubt about its validity.

   “I guess it would be accurate to say that he’s all I’ve got too.”

   “I remember that your wife passed away several years ago,” came the compassionate response. The older gentleman smiled as the memory of the many years that he and his wife had shared suddenly replaced the somber memory of the recent car accident. The young woman gracefully moved her stack of test papers to the side of the desk and leaned forward in her chair before continuing.

   “I have always believed in being honest with my parents, guardians, and students and so I have always brought situations to their attention even if there’s really no action that needs to be taken.”

   Her compassionate expression did not waver. 

   “With that being said, over the past few days your grandson has endured some teasing, some would call it bullying, from some of the other students. I wanted you to be aware as I know most children do not talk about such things.”

   The older gentleman’s mind immediately raced for any possible cause for such teasing. His grandson in every way was a completely normal second grader especially for everything he had recently endured. His second emotion, following quickly behind the first, was anger. What kind of person would mistreat a young boy who had just lost both of his parents? His Southern upbringing told him that such actions were in no way acceptable and he quickly conjured up several methods of appropriate punishment for the bullies.

   “For what cause?” he inquired, still unable to come up with any possible reason for the mistreatment.

   “It seems to revolve around his lunchbox.”

   A sudden wave of embarrassment swept over the older gentleman as an image of the old, faded metal lunchbox came to mind. The lunchbox had been his daughter’s when she was his grandson‘s age. In fact, her name, written with a black marker and covered with clear nail polish to prevent its removal, still remained on the inside of the top lid. It was an old Walt Disney design shaped like a yellow school bus with several well-know cartoon characters painted on its sides. The paint had become faded and was chipped in several places but there was absolutely nothing else wrong with it. After his daughter’s passing, he had brought it out of retirement for his grandson to use. Fashion and style had not even crossed his mind.

   “I see,” he responded sheepishly. “I suppose the kids don’t carry such old things like that nowadays.”

   “Not so much,” came the kind response. “Too much technology these days, or they just eat in the cafeteria.” 

   He should have known better, he thought to himself. He should have planned ahead and realized that times had changed. He should’ve realized that his old-fashioned ways were not going to fly in the modern world. It was fine if people wanted to poke fun at him for doing things the way he always had. But now, out of his own ignorance, he had worsened the suffering of his own grandson.

   “But,” she continued leaning in a little closer. “I didn’t ask you to come in today to tell you to give your grandson a new lunchbox, or to make you feel badly about giving it to him.” 

   The older gentleman looked up to meet the teacher’s compassionate gaze. She then took a deep breath and leaned back a little.  

   “I have not been teaching for as long as some,” she began. “But I have been teaching for long enough. I have seen students and parents come and go. I have seen children from wealthy families neglected but children from families with far less resources treated with love and compassion. I have witnessed the opposite situation as well. I have seen styles, fashion, TV shows, movies and lunchboxes wax and wane.” 

   She paused for a moment, as if taking a moment to steady herself before continuing. 

   “But I have never seen a boy’s lunch packaged with more love than your grandson’s.”

   The older gentleman did not know how to respond. 

   “As a teacher, I am trained to be observant and always be aware of my surroundings. I could not help but notice your grandson the other day as he ate his lunch. Without shame at all, he placed his lunchbox on the table and completely ignored the teasing of some of the others. Everything inside that box was neatly packaged. I also noticed that when he ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you had cut it into the shape of a Christmas tree.”

   The older man smiled.

   “I learned that from his mother. She used a cookie cutter to cut out the shape.”

   The teacher smiled in return. 

   “I wish you could have been there to see his face when he reads the notes you pack in his lunch.  His face always breaks into a smile.”

   The older man looked down at the floor. 

   “I just want him to know he’s not alone.” 

   “And I assure you he does. That’s why he ignores the teasing.”

   The teacher then leaned back in her chair.

   “Let me also assure you of one thing. That type of teasing is not tolerated in my classroom and I assure you that in my presence it will never be. I have made sure of that by discussing this both with the other involved students and with their parents as well.”

   “I appreciate that. And thank you for your kind words.”

   He then rose to leave as he knew his grandson would be waiting nearby. Just as he was about to reach the door, he heard her call his name. He turned once more. 

   “One of the downsides of being a teacher,” she began. “Is that you see mankind at his worst. There’s no doubt from what I’ve seen that man’s heart is twisted from birth. Never once has it been necessary for me to teach students how to do what is wrong. On the contrary, it takes all the effort than I can muster to keep them on the straight and narrow. That fact has always told me which nature comes naturally. I say that to tell you that you and your grandson are shining a light in a very dark world. The contents of a boy’s lunchbox can change the world. Five loaves and two fish did. Merry Christmas. Keep that light shining.”

   His brow furrowed with gratitude and he nodded his head respectfully, even though he felt unworthy of the compliment. He then turned and passed through the classroom entrance and left the door open just as he had found it. Sitting on a hallway bench just a short distance down from the classroom was his grandson, holding the old faded metal lunchbox on his lap. The older gentleman‘s heart was full to the breaking point as he watched the young man, the feeling of embarrassment once again raising its head. Those feelings were short-lived, however, as the young man looked up and saw his grandfather. He immediately sprang to his feet and ran to the older gentleman, the metal lunchbox clanging the whole way. 

   “Hey there, sport!” His grandfather began with his usual greeting as he reached down to give the boy a hug. “And just how are you?” 

   “Good!” came the honest response. “I see you met my teacher.”

   “I sure did.”

   “She’s really pretty, papa” the boy said matter-of-factly. 

   His grandfather cleared his throat nervously as he recalled the auburn-haired young woman. 

   “I hadn’t noticed.”

   “Guess what?”

   “What?”

   “ I don’t have any homework tonight. The teacher said there’s no point anyway since we start Christmas break after tomorrow.”

   “Well, that sounds fine to me,” his grandfather responded. “That actually works out for the better because I’ve been thinking about taking you to the store to see if maybe you wanted to get a different lunchbox. Now would be a good time. I know that one’s a little old.”

   The young boy looked down at the faded lunchbox.

   “No, that’s OK. I like this one. It was mommy’s.”

   “Are you sure you don’t want a new one?”

   “Yep.”

   “Alright, but the offer still stands if you change your mind.”

   “Ok.” 

   The pair passed through the doors of the school’s side entrance and surveyed the Christmas decorations once again before turning to cross the parking lot. 

   “You know what I think?” the older man asked. 

   “What?”

   “I think we should get some ice cream. I know it’s basically  winter, but I don’t discriminate. I’ll eat ice cream anytime.”

   “We learned in science that you shouldn’t eat too many treats. If you eat less ice cream, you’ll live longer.”

   “I’m not so sure about that,” the older man responded. “It’s just that life without ice cream feels longer.”

   “Maybe you’re right. Let’s go get ice cream.”

   The pair then continued, hand in hand toward the truck waiting in the distance. 

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