December 22, 2007
This column, against my better judgment, is about Christmas, but to get there, we have to go back to the spring of my freshman year in college. I’d decided to stay on for the summer semester and toil away in the library basement, reading from tomes of poetry so aged they smelled of mold and as though they had been handed to me by the decaying hands of those who had so eloquently written there, in stingy ink.
To finance such an extravagant idea as summer school, I took on a school bus driving job which consisted of locating the children of migrant farm workers and bringing them to school each day for breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and a day’s worth of instruction in the three R’s. It was a government sponsored “Head Start” program and was, for me, the antithesis of studying in the library. I was working in northern Colorado, trying to drum up business with people who spoke Spanish.
As this yellow-bused gringo pulled into driveways in front of gray, wasted, old clapboard farmhouses without running water, filled with three or four working families each, everyone inside strolled out, the young eyes bright with curiosity and all hearts overflowing with generosity. By dark, I’d have 15 or 20 kids lined up for the next day, located around an area covering many more square miles than I’d care to remember, and with the coming of daylight, would find at least half of them timidly awaiting my approach.
Each day, a very striking girl, no more than 10, would sit in the very back of the bus and stare wistfully out the window in a way that belied her tender years. All of these kids behaved in an immaculate fashion, but whenever there was a question or concern among the troops, she immediately became the leader and resolved whatever the issue may have been. She very seldom smiled, but her demeanor, as she got on and off the bus, indicated she was genuinely pleased with her ability to go to school each day.
Soon, however, her father determined that she was too valuable in the fields and she was unceremoniously forbidden to go to school anymore. This caused some other problems, as well, since some of the younger children missed her steadying influence and began to drop out of the program. Being young and foolish, I interfered in the father’s vision of his responsibilities, insisting that the young girl be allowed to continue with school, she being perhaps the best chance his family had of anything but back-breaking labor ahead of them. Reluctantly, the father acquiesced, for a couple more days, and then through an English-speaking friend, informed me in no uncertain terms that his daughter was going to work in the fields ” no more school.
We all survived the summer and life went on. I continued driving a school bus for college money and at the end of the fall semester, was invited to a Christmas celebration being conducted by a fellow driver, who was also a lay preacher. His flock was small, he said, but passionate and would welcome a derelict such as myself without reservation. I questioned it, though, but finally agreed on the condition that he not make a big deal out of my presence.
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Thus, was I singing at the back of the small church when a young lady from the side of the room noticed and came my direction. With a shy, silent smile, eyes toward the floor, the girl from the summer head start program put her hand in mine and waited with me until the hymn was over. She then went quickly back and sat down with what turned out to be extended family, a school girl at last. I never saw her again, but she made Christmas a little lighter that year.
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