In sixth grade, at holiday time, our teacher had us draw names for a secret santa exchange. I drew the name of a student I barely knew. From my childhood lens, I knew this: Jimmy was very poor, very strange, uncouth, unmannerly, often absent, and seemingly had no friends. From my adult lens, I know he was poor and probably had a lot of food and shelter insecurities.
When I drew Jimmy’s name, I remember feeling dread. I will say that my dread came from a certain wisdom I had then. I knew he would want something that I or others might not know or understand. I knew he probably couldn’t participate in the exchange, and I knew it was all awkward. I also knew I wanted to get this right.
This was in those days when we all gave each other the lifesaver storybook gift boxes. It’s all I wanted. I know that.
But. I wanted to get him something different. He sat diagonally just across and behind me, when he was in school. Students made fun of him, and he seemed to not notice or not care. Or some combination of those things. I didn’t like people making fun of him, and I was always curious about him. Most of us in my community were not very well to do, and we all were used to not having much. But he had far less than any of us, and that made me wonder. I was always a big reader, and I remember that year I’d read a book about a very poor family, and my eyes were so widened. I had always thought my family were kind of poor, but to read about REAL poverty was startling to me. I will always remember thinking of this boy when I read that book. No, I don’t remember the name of the book. I read about five books a week back then.
But, I always tried to be nice to him. I didn’t snicker when others did, when he made social gaffes. I handed him papers without acting like it was “icky” to be around him or near him. I wish I could say I was always nice like that, but I wasn’t. There was just something about him.
So, when I drew Jimmy’s name, I felt like it was something meant to be. That I was meant to be the one to find a good gift for him.
Five dollars was the limit, I think, for our gifts. I thought about it so much. I can honestly say I’ve never thought about any gift for anyone before, during, or since, as much as I thought about that gift for him.
I was in my room, listening to my transistor radio on a Friday night about a week before we were to exchange our gifts. Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” came on, and I turned it up. That song was so transformative for me. I just loved it. Those were the days when you had to buy the record or wait until it came on the radio.
It occurred to me that Jimmy probably liked that song too.
I got up that next morning and asked my father if he could drive me into Portland to the record store. I told him why. He agreed to drive me. It’s funny, because I remember my father talking cryptically about Jimmy and his family. He knew the family, and I could tell he knew something about them. And I could tell he had empathy for this boy and their family. But my father never told me anything about them. He just drove me to the record store.
The 45 record cost a bit over five dollars. I cleaned houses and babysat, so I had the money. I felt so proud buying it, so hopeful. But also so scared. It would be the only gift at the gift exchange that wasn’t a lifesaver gift box. I knew that.
That Friday, before our Christmas break, he wasn’t at school. We all exchanged gifts, our lifesaver gift boxes, and his was left. The teacher gave it to a student who lived next door to him, and he would deliver it.
I went home that night, somewhat sullen, wondering what he’d think, if I’d ever know. And I let that go, knowing that this wasn’t about me. I wasn’t always that mature, but I do remember knowing that I’d done what I thought was a good thing, and that that should just be the end of the story.
I was in my room on the second floor that night. It was cold, and the windows were steamy from the radiators, and I was snuggled in a blanket on my bed. My parents were downstairs in the dining room playing cards with our neighbors. I heard the phone ring, and I heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs. It was my father, and he walked all the way up the stairs and knocked on my door. That alone was pretty bizarre. Normally, he would bellow up the stairs that the phone was for me. But here he was, sober in countenance, telling me that a boy was on the phone for me.
I was flabbergasted. This was before “boys on the phone” was part of my life, and also, there was something about how my father spoke that made me wonder.
I walked downstairs and picked up the phone from the counter. My parents and the others were quiet, eavesdropping. I said hello.
“Hi Karen, it’s Jim.” I couldn’t think who Jim was, but he kept talking. ‘I got your present, and I wanted to thank you. I love that song so much. Thank you.” I started to reply “you’re welcome”, but I heard the dial tone before I could get that out.
I stared down at the phone, and I felt so many emotions and thought so many thoughts. How had he gotten my number? How brave was he! Why did he hang up so fast? He’d called himself Jim!
I looked at my parents. I told them who it was. My father nodded. “He introduced himself when he asked for you.”
So, that “uncouth, unmannerly” boy had more couth and class than I know I could ever have mustered at that point in my life.
I remember being gratified...to a degree. I felt more like I’d been schooled in how to truly be a better person. I admired his manners and bravery. I didn’t know anyone my age at that time who would have dared to pick up the phone and call someone they barely knew.
I remember meeting my father’s eyes. I remember how he understood.
And now, during these crazy times, living during a pandemic, how we are all not living freely in our desire to be with friends and family, how hard this is on all of us, I think of that time.
I think of those small gifts and how powerful it is to simply be grateful. Jimmy. Jim. He gave me a lifelong gift.