Spring Hill Middle School was ready for Christmas. Every room had been decorated with a tiny tree, paper garlands, and glittery tinsel taped along the walls in scalloped bows. There were even presents, brought in by the students themselves for a classmate whose name they'd pulled out of a hat.
Every year they showed a film in the dusty auditorium, whose radiators bubbled and hissed under each curtained window along the eastern wall. This year's was A Christmas Carol. It flickered on the large white canvas in black and white jolts, hitting my retinas like a jumping match; drawing me into a world of old London, and crooked, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge. The moment Alastair Sims looked out over us in the darkened middle rows with a sneer, I smiled, and from that moment on have loved this particular version of the classic, and Sim's brilliant performance as the miserly changeling.
Looking around, I could see the faces of all my classmates. They looked bored, tired, restless. Some were whispering, wishing it was Christmas break already. They had big presents to open, perhaps an Atari game system or a brand new sled, just right for the time away from school. I didn't know what would be under my family's tree, aside what I had bought at Gibson's a week before with only five dollars. A little purse for Cathy, a strategy war-game for Marshall, and a box of bath soaps for Mom. They were already wrapped, and had been placed carefully under the lilting boughs in a little mound of silvery ribbon and plain red paper.
The movie ended and the auditorium expelled us out in to the hall in a noisy stream of girls telling each other secrets and boy jumping up to hit the door frame above their heads. Then it was on to our classrooms for our Christmas party, where we'd open our presents and then leave for break.
Our teacher had a slightly different plan. She sat us down and began to tell us about Ralph, the man we'd seen in the senior citizen home during the last few months for our weekly class visits. He was eighty years old, she said, and he didn't know how to read. He wanted to write a Christmas card to his family, but needed our help. Would we like to help him?
The smart and popular girls raised their hands right away. Of course they would love to help. They had an unending confidence that they were the perfect people for the job. I also raised my hand, but with hesitation. Mrs. Harris smiled, selecting me to join with the girls and also some of the boys, causing me to be filled with doubt. I would ruin it, for sure and shouldn't have raised my hand.
We were led down to the school library, where Ralph sat at a table, wearing a red flannel shirt and denim overalls. His face was wrinkled with deep lines, hair jutting out in white feathery puffs. He smiled at us, getting up with a wobbly stance as we came to stand around him.
"Ralph, these kids have offered to help you write that Christmas card. Kids, use this paper I printed out, and show him what each letter is, then show him how to write out each word that he wants to say."
Everyone agreed and was ready to get to work. Susan Kips treated him like a baby, and I hated it. "Okay, Ralph, this is an A . . . can you say A?" I rolled my eyes. He repeated the letter in a dry, gentle voice, then repeated each one from the whole alphabet we chanted to him. Next we taught three-letter words like D-O-G and C-A-T. He seemed embarrassed, but was focused, even in the moments we spoke at him in unison, voices raised and excited with our task. Someone handed him a pencil to use to start writing his letter, but when he reached for it we all became quiet. He was missing the index finger on his right hand.
"Ralph!" Corey Olmeier, exclaimed. "What happened to your finger?"
The old man laughed, holding out the rest of his knotted digits. "Aw, that. I was about thirteen, trying to get my Pa's horse out of the barn, and I shouldn't a been standing behind so close. That horse up and kicked me, bruised me up real bad, crushed my finger and they had to cut it off. My Pa was so mad at me. Been dead a long time now. Only one left is me and my sister, but I ain't seen her much since I left home at sixteen."
A horrible silence followed his story. No finger, couldn't read, no family. What kind of life was that?
"Did it hurt Ralph?" somebody finally asked.
"Hurt like hell."
More silence, then I, after searching through the faces and seeing no sign of activity, opened my mouth to speak. "Okay Ralph. You have to write your letter now. What did you want to say in it?"
He smiled, "I just want to say, Merry Christmas."
I pointed to the letter M on Mrs. Harris' guide, and he started to print. It was poor execution, but he was determined. We sat and watched him trace every letter that we pointed to, then when he was done, we folded the paper so that it looked like a real Christmas card.
Shelly Wentz started to draw a snowman on the front cover, then Alice Day traced a glue stick on the ridges, sprinkling glitter over the top. Next we had him write his name on the envelope, and the address he wanted to send it to.
When it was done, Mrs. Harris came over to see the completed project. She was pleased.
"Well, Ralph, did these kids help you out?"
He nodded, looking at each one of us in gratitude. "They sure did. I never wrote a Christmas card before. I never read nothing before." He had to stop talking, because he couldn't make the words come out of his throat.
The bell rang.
"Bye Ralph!" everyone yelled, heading for the door. "Merry Christmas, Ralph!"
I looked back to see him clutching at the letter. He stared at it for a second, eyes looking more red than when he had sat next to us a few minutes before. Then, that imperfect, knotted hand slipped the letter down into the front pocket of his overalls and he started a wobbly trek past Mrs. Harris and I at the library door.
"You mail that card, Ralph," she spoke in a warm, sure voice. "Your sister has waited a long time."
He nodded, grabbing both of her hands in his for a quiet answer to her request, moving on to the hall and outside where snow was falling in hurried flakes.
"Enjoy your Christmas," she whispered to me, handing me my Secret Santa present with a little smile. I opened it carefully, revealing a little book of poetry, just right for a young girl with millions of dreams in her head. Looking up, I returned her gentle hug, then turned away to make the long snow-filled walk all the way home to Franklin Street, where the holiday exploits had already begun.