A Christmas education
Our first-grader left home for school this morning with a fist-full of one dollar bills because we don’t keep much cash around these days. This week our public school makes available an array of presents for children to buy, priced from .50 to $10, and she has been convinced there to do her holiday shopping.
I should like to pretend that the point of this exercise is to teach children the value of money, but optimism is not my strong suit. The reality is that this is yet another fund-raiser by which our educational system struggles to fund itself without admitting that a tax increase might be in order. The other reality is that we will all have to make nice over an array of plastic landfill brought home and wrapped with lots of tape in the guise of conquering this particular lesson.
By coincidence, I spent an hour and a half yesterday in the church basement where my wife was raised in this small town, and where she and our daughter spend part of each Sunday. I do not have their faith, nor a sense of family and community which might otherwise oblige me to attend, and so I darken the doors only when our little one has been pressed into some kind of theatrical service, or when there’s work to be done.
Each year, for so many years that nobody remembers when it began, this church buys Christmas for two handsful of families. What that means is that each of twenty families — the names come through the school district — will receive a box of household items, a box of food, and as many wrapped packages as we are able to provide based on their lists. They will still be cold, they will still be juggling bills and landlords and members of their families in more trouble even than they are, but this much we can do.
I should perhaps add that we live on the edge of Appalachia, in a relatively prosperous county surrounded by some of the worst poverty north of Mississippi, by which we measure our progress, perhaps.
There is a smell one does not forget.
We dress warm and meet after church, load up everybody’s car, puzzle out the directions, get lost, and go through a peculiar distant ritual of delivering Christmas to strangers. Some, of course, are ashamed to be in need. Some are accustomed to our arrival, for there are families this church has been delivering to since the program began, and the only change in their circumstance is apparently that the road has been paved these last couple of years.
Trailer parks, mostly, and they begin to feel as alien and dangerous — the ones with reputations for meth and oxy — as the projects do in big cities, not that I’ve spent any time in either.
One wishes not to be a tourist.
This is not about guilt. At least I don’t think it is. I think it is about doing the best we can, when we can. The thing is to try.
And the question we face is whether our daughter is read to come along this weekend, when we take Christmas to one of these families. And to hope she doesn’t know any of the kids from school, or soccer.
(Written, incidentally, previewing the new Drive-By Truckers album, though one has nothing much to do with the other.)