Christmas time has always been a weird time for me. While it has always been one of, if not my favorite, time of the year. It has always come with a lot of having to go with the flow. When we lived in Alabama when I was 8, we would pretty much leave after school got out for Christmas break and not return until a little bit before New Years so that my dad could host a youth lock-in at church. When I was 12 we lived in Hawaii and we missed a Christmas one year because we couldn’t afford to fly back to St. Louis. When I was 14 we traveled the shortest distance we ever had, driving the five hours from Indianapolis. When I was 19 I spent Christmas Eve in a hotel in Lebanon, MO with my girlfriend because I crashed her car driving on icy roads. And most recently, I spent Christmas Day at the Balakin household, doing the opposite return trip to Indianapolis. Christmas has always meant travel, and movement, and family, and presents, and way too much food. But now Christmas seems weird after all but one of my grandparents have died. I don’t know how to really feel or do Christmas anymore. But I have it easy. I have happy memories of Christmas, and I start playing Michael Buble the second Thanksgiving gets here (maybe a smidge earlier if we are being honest). But whether or not I was going to have Christmas was never in question. Several of my students are not in the same boat.
Last year when I worked in a public school in the Northern part of St. Louis County, I was working in an at-risk program at the school called the Success Academy. All of these students were credit deficient, mostly of it of their own doing, but not exempt from blame was the situation that they grew up in. I had several students who had parents in jail and were being raised by a grandparent or no parent. I had a student whose contact was his sister who had only graduated a couple of years earlier.
I would come to my life group at church and tell them about all of the trials that my students were going through, and they decided to adopt my students for Christmas. We got them hats and gloves, socks and scarves, food that they liked (hot fries mostly), and some McDonalds gift cards. You would’ve thought that they had been gifted an all expenses paid trip to Jamaica. They were so incredibly grateful.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Either “aww that’s so sweet” or “This reeks with white savior complex.” And you would not be wrong on either account. I was still at a place in my relationship with these students that I was still trying to save them through what I deemed important in my eyes and not what was important through theirs. This took a while, but when it did happen. I reached a new level of genuineness with my students that I had never experienced before as a teacher. Why? Because I tried to understand them to the point of empathy, and that’s what I think we need to try and do this holiday season.
I am never going to understand what it’s like to be a black, teenage male from a rough neighborhood, who grew up in his grandmother’s house. I will never understand what it’s like to thrown out of my house for getting pregnant at 16 (for obvious reasons). These are just a couple of examples of the many reasons that we need to tread lightly when it comes to expressing the “common” joy of the holidays with your students, because to them, Christmas break may mean not eating. It may mean having to be in a house with an abusive guardian. It is not something that I can even begin to understand. But I need to try to for the sake of my students.
I like to think we need to do the things that teachers already do, which is listen to what our students are saying, read their body language, and respond to what you observe. Being noticed is all some of these students want. If you’re worried about your student on break, be their connection to school by sending them a personalized email over the holidays about how you can’t wait to see them back in class. They may never admit it, but your classroom might be their favorite place in the world, because as cheesy as it sounds (and I do love cheese), your classroom might be the place that feels the most like home to them.
….And if your classroom is the place that feels the most like home to them, it sure is going to suck if they aren’t there for the holidays. So, be an encouragement, be empathetic, listen to what they are saying, and respond to their hearts.
Thanks for reading