Every Christmas season the twins Ken and Sandra cross my mind.
They were two of the students in my third-grade class at Washington Elementary School in south St. Cloud way back in the 1950s.
Christmas was always an exciting time in grade school. Our little heads were filled with happy thoughts of the toys “Santa” would be bringing us on Christmas Eve and the equally happy thought of getting days off from school, a chance to stay home and play endlessly with our new toys.
Our school was always decorated top to bottom with Christmas images – its hallway walls lined with our color-crayon drawings, the huge tree in the vestibule sparkling with ornaments and the colored-paper chain garlands we students made, the gymnasium filled with the joyous singing at the Christmas concert.
I can still remember, in third-grade, enjoying the concert, then walking in single file like ducklings down the highly-waxed green-tiled hallway back to our classroom. There, the teacher had arranged all the desks in a circle. It was gift-giving time. A week earlier we had plucked names out of a hat, and each student would then get a present from a mystery giver.
Eagerly, we took our seats in our circle. The teacher distributed the colorfully wrapped gifts to the recipients. Then, bristling with excitement, each of us opened our presents, one at a time.
My gift, I quickly noticed, looked somehow shabby sad. It was wrapped clumsily with what looked like old-and-faded birthday paper, the creases from some previous box still visible on it. I could tell instantly, from its shape and feel, it was some kind of coloring book. The gift said, “To Dennis from Ken.” I looked over at Ken and smiled and waved. He smiled back blushing, bashful, like he always did.
Ken and Sandra, sad to say, were practically aliens in our classroom. They lived right across the street, their ramshackle gloomy old house on 8th Street, visible right through our big row of classroom windows. Those twins were so obviously living in poverty. They came to school looking vaguely unwashed, with tousled hair, always wearing hand-me-downs – Ken with worn corduroy pants way too big for him, Sandra with dresses that looked like they’d been hand-made from faded flowery sheets. I felt so sorry for them because they always looked so nervous, as if they were ready to cry any minute. I would go out of my way to try to be nice to them. But they were so shy, it was hard to get through their skittish reserve.
“Dennis, it’s your turn,” Mrs. Dripp, the teacher, said.
At that, I quickly opened the present. Sure enough, it was a connect-the-dots book. But, like the wrapping, it looked worn, used. I riffled through the pages and instantly saw the dull-gray smudge marks of erasures. Oh no! Poor Kenny or his parents couldn’t afford to buy a present, so he gave me his own connect-the-dots book, having worked so hard to erase all the pencil lines.
I looked across at Ken, who was looking so scared and so embarrassed, his head down.
“Hey, Kenny!” I said. “Gee, thanks. This is just what I wanted.”
I could see his visible relief. He smiled bashfully, blushing.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
Sandra was also looking over at the gift. She, too, seemed to brighten and smile.
They say it’s not the gift that counts; it’s the thought. Well, that’s how I felt about Ken’s gift. He must have been up half the night, erasing, erasing, erasing those pencil lines.
Every Christmas season, I remember Ken and his connect-the-dots gift. They remind me of how many children in poor families don’t have merry Christmases. Some don’t even get a single gift. And what is sadder than a kid without a toy on Christmas Day?