Several years ago, in an effort to make the building look festive as parents visited for various events, my middle school principal suggested mandated a Christmas door decorating contest in December. Each homeroom would choose a theme and embellish their classroom doors to match. Naturally, it was a contest—with the winning homeroom scoring donuts and cocoa.
I had some reservations about this. Competitive decorating—for a holiday that represents only one faith-ish tradition—is really not kosher, so to speak, in a public school. Even with a fairly uniform—middle class, non-diverse—student population, embracing a range of celebrations and ‘reasons for the season’ has always been my M.O., the way to meld parent expectations around a December concert, and teach students that mankind, in arctic and temperate zones anyway, has marked the Solstice as celestial turning point. Everything else, from Santa Claus to midnight Mass, came later.
Besides, enforced cheer can be anxiety-producing for many students in December, even in a school district where a very large majority of students celebrate Christmas in their homes. There are always children whose grandmother is seriously ill, whose dad has lost his job, whose parents have split and are now experiencing two, or more, less-than-Hallmark celebrations, marked by tears and disappointment.
In fact, the longer you live, the more you realize that sweetness and light at the holidays happens only sometimes. When you’re genuinely mature, you can come to seriously appreciate the bittersweet holiday, the annual opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of life, the quiet pleasures of memory.
But not if you’re, say, twelve—and wondering why other kids get Force One hand-operated drones, and you’re just hoping to have dinner with someone who cares about you.
One year during the weeks leading up to the winter break, I asked my students to write about what they planned to do during their time off. Most wrote things like, “see my cousins,” “get a new gaming system,” and “go skiing.” However, one of my students turned in a blank piece of paper with just his name on it. When I asked him why he didn’t write anything, he reluctantly told me that he wasn’t excited for the break. He said all winter break meant to him was two weeks at home alone while his mother was passed out on the couch. No tree. No family dinners. Not even any presents.
I was discussing this minefield with three of my friends who are veteran teachers. One said:
The year I moved from elementary to HS remedial, I loved every minute until about Thanksgiving… I finally went into my principal’s office and admitted I was a terrible teacher and I wasn’t doing anything right. She gently explained the difference between what my littles were anticipating, and my bigs. How holidays were dreaded… It helped me right the ship and look at my students with new eyes.
And another wrote:
I taught homeless children for nearly two decades. There were two times a year when we’d see them cry as they left the building. One was Christmas and the other was the end of the school year! Having come from a supportive family with family traditions around the holidays, I can only imagine what these youngsters endured.
Lest you think this holiday stress is a function of poverty, here’s a comment from a teacher at a private boarding school:
The period between Thanksgiving break and winter break is one of the most stressful of the year here. Whatever the nature of the home life each kid may have, the adjustment on return from a break always takes some time as does anticipation of and preparation for an upcoming break. Additionally, some international students go out on a home stay here rather than returning to their home. All this means some kids feel they are in non-stop transition, which is really hard. Advisors and our school counselor, being aware of this, do what we can to make ourselves available to kids however they may need us.
When my homeroom of 8th graders heard about the door decorating contest, they immediately recognized it for what it was: a sugar-laced bribe. While many of the doors in the building began sporting live greenery, battery-pack flashing lights and construction paper fireplaces, our door was blank and undecorated as the deadline approached.
Finally, one of the girls (it’s always a young woman who takes the lead on a project like this) covered the door in brown butcher paper and wrote ‘What Do You Really Want for Christmas?’ at the top. We left magic markers next to the door and invited everyone on the 8th grade hallway to participate. *
What happened next was low-key but amazing. Students wrote about noble things—true peace on earth, healing the planet—but also their private needs: No fighting at my house. My brother comes home from the hospital. I get to see my friends from my old school.
Students stuck things to the door with glue sticks—notes from friends, grades ripped from the top of assignments. It became a graffiti wall, untidy and the opposite of celebratory.
I wasn’t there when the teacher-judges came around but can only imagine their faces as they saw Mrs. Flanagan’s cop-out door. So very un-Christmasy—but maybe not.
We didn’t win. But we had cocoa anyway.
*See commenter Cara’s remark below–she’s right, it was a sexist thing to say. And not accurate.