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The Grace of Small Gifts

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It was the smallest gift that started all the trouble. Each student received a sheet of paper, an envelope, a sticker. Now the paper was rather lovely with pale watermarks of leaves and flowers, and the envelopes matched spiffily, but the stickers were just an afterthought, nickel-sized and silver-colored, paper-backed, one-dimensional ornaments. Of course all the students wanted more of everything. For the inmates, mail was an important means of communication, especially at Christmas, and any non-commissary item was a valuable commodity. In years past, we had had real Christmas parties, with non-jail food brought in from the outside -- usually tacos from the Mexican taqueria on South Boulevard, fat soft corn tortillas of beef, pork, chicken and tongue, accompanied by gallons of Christmas-colored condiments, green chili salsa and pico de gallo. This was my first Christmas teaching in the jail when there would be no party. The small gifts were the best I could do. I've had to learn to pare down, pare away in jail. I had yet to learn to do it gracefully.

I was teaching an intermediate class of English as a Second Language at the jail, and my colleague, Dottie, taught the beginners. On this last day of class before the Christmas break, both classes were crammed in one room to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was a large classroom, but the four dozen men were shoulder to shoulder, knee pressed to knee, orange jumpsuits, brown faces, almost Japanese in feet of socks and thongs. There was a risk in so many together for they could not resist the poke and jostle of the schoolyard. This was a place where casual touch was forbidden, only handshakes were permitted. The need for human contact was a palpable thing.

It was difficult to pass up and down the rows to give out the stationery and stickers, and even more difficult to keep straight who had already gotten what. Arturo, a tall Dominican, carefully removed the paper backing, and with his right thumb, planted the sticker on the pocket of his shirt. Arturo was the kind of man who thought that his close proximity was enough to wrangle all manner of things out of women. He spoke very softly and motioned me over, so I was finally standing only a few inches away. And then he would make a request, for there was always a request: "I have a problem, maybe you can help me," "This is personal," and, on this occasion, "Can I go to the bathroom?" I reluctantly gave him permission, knowing he would have to return to the pod, or living area, to use the bathroom. I knew he might not make it back.

A few minutes later, I noticed an officer standing in the hallway, peering through the windows. About five feet from the floor, windows provided a view between hallway and classroom. It could be a distraction during class, especially when the female inmates walked by. The windows were a safety feature, allowing officers to see what the inmates were up to in the class, preventing major disruptions.

Whenever an officer stood watching through the windows, I got a little paranoid -- what did I do? What did the students do? It was like being in a fishbowl. This time, the officer's eyes were tracking up and down the rows, obviously looking for or at something. When I couldn't take it anymore, I opened the door.

"Is something wrong?"

"Yes, ma'am. Did you give them these stickers?" Arturo's self-decoration must have been discovered.

"Yes, is that a problem?"

"Well, yeah. They can't have 'em. They're contraband."

"Contraband? I never thought stickers would be contraband. They're so small. What could they do with them?"

"They're contraband. You better get them back, ma'am. They can't have 'em."

Now I felt even smaller. My gifts not only were tiny, they were contraband, something that would get the students in trouble.

"Gentlemen, I'm sorry. I messed up. You can't have the stickers. They're contraband. I'm going to collect them, so you don't get in trouble."

Some pulled them out right away, eager to help me put this behind us. Others slowly, sadly brought them forth. Folders were opened, fingers sent probing into pockets, some stickers pried off of papers. I gathered the small paper squares into a big pile in my hand. Now the insignificant had been rendered pathetic. It took several minutes to press between knees, one by one. I was a conductor taking tickets, no one happy with the direction we were heading.

After the Grinch had stolen Christmas, when Dottie and I were closing up the classroom, we could see and hear two students being stopped and questioned by different officers at the escort desk midway down the corridor. "Oh, no, what now?" Dottie and I started down that way to see what was going on. Again, folders were opened, something taken out. One student headed down the hall, his head cocking first to one side, then to the other, in a strut both defiant and dejected.

"Is there a problem, officer?"

"Did you give them this paper?"

"Yes. We often give them special paper. It is to encourage their writing. There's nothing wrong with paper is there? I mean, we've been giving them paper, one or two sheets at a time for years." I was talking a lot, trying to free the remaining student, free him and his paper. I felt nervous and a bit sick. Finally, the student and his stationery were released to return to the pod, but any joy in the clean, crisp paper was long gone.

I returned a few days later, not to teach a class, but to help several students record audiotapes to send their children. Two students came down from one pod, but they didn't want to audiotape that day. One of them was young and had no children. He used an alias, an AKA or "acca" as the students pronounced it. He was then rather extravagantly named after a famous Apache Indian and the art museum in Madrid. No one was suspicious about his grandiloquent title. He didn't care for this alias anymore, and asked me to call him Manuel. I was happy to do so. To call him by the other name made me feel like I was running pell-mell down a hill to plunge into a deep pool.

The two students told me they weren't making audiotapes. To me it was another loss, a giving up. I felt like Eeyore: "no party, no gifts, no tapes for family."

"Dile," Manuel whispered to the other student, a serious man with more English. "Dile feliz Navidad."

"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family," said the serious man, extending his hand. I shook it, knowing that that was the only way inmates could touch others. To touch in another way can get them sent to the "hole."

"Feliz Navidad y prospero ano Nuevo," I responded. I turned to Manuel with my hand outstretched. "Feliz Navidad." Manuel grasped my hand and quickly rose to tiptoes and threw his left arm around my neck. A hug lasting only an instant.

"Merry Christmas," he said, "and thank you."

It was this smallest gift that put it all right again. On some level, and in some way, at least one student had understood perhaps what I had been trying to do. In the face of all that was impossible, he allowed me to see what was possible. That this holiday was not about the gifts or the parties, but about simple connections between people. A hug, a thank-you, a grace in small things.

This essay is from Tis the Season: The Gift of Holiday Memories edited by Tom Peacock and published by Novello Festival Press, copyright 2001 ($15.95). The book is available at area bookstores and at branches of the public library. All proceeds go to support the Public Library. *

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