Hard Candy X-Mas
December 23, 2002
Last week, my day-job hosted a gift exchange for all of the Product Engineering employees. The rules were simple -- bring a gift for the exchange, $15 max price. Many people referred to it as a "White Elephant" gift exchange, which was clearly a misnomer, for a "White Elephant" gift is defined by suite101.com as:
". . . one that someone gave you that you never took a shining to and you've decided to wrap it up as new and pass it on to someone else"
Or, as Seinfeld referred to it: "re-gifting." Anyway, lots of folks were shocked when I did not participate in the exchange. A few asked me why, and I could not immediately explain it, except to say that gift exchanges, where everyone is asked to buy and bring in a gift, in general (outside of gifts given in the normal way to friends and family) left me feeling a little icky. The questions made me sit down and think hard about my aversion to this fairly common holiday ceremony, and I think I've figured out the problem. It's roots, like so many of my numerous neuroses, lie in my childhood.
I did most of my growing-up in a small town of about 1,500 people in North Dakota (Burlington, in case you care about the specifics). The town was pretty much 100% white and middle-class. The "rich kids" at school were maybe upper-middle-class, by national standards, and the "poor kids" were maybe lower-middle-class. With costs of living so low as they are back home, very few people were really, truly poor, and those with upper-middle-class income lived, we all felt, like kings. My family was pretty much middle-middle or lower-middle-middle -- we had maybe a few lean years when Dad was teaching, but he always worked extra jobs on evenings and weekends to make sure we had everything we needed, and some extra (how can I ever thank you enough, Dad?). Anyway, the point is that everyone was on a relatively even keel in this small, midwestern town, economically speaking. And, every year at school, we had a Christmas gift exchange.
When I was in, I think, the third grade (maybe fourth -- I'm not 100% certain), a new family moved into town. They were from somewhere far away -- Louisiana, maybe, or Germany. I remember they had thick accents, but I've no recollection of what the dialects sounded like. There was a mother, a father, and two children: one, a boy my age, and another a girl maybe 2 or 3 years younger. I don't remember any names, but they were all blonde with blue eyes, very thin, and very truly poor. I think they might have been the only people I'd ever known, or would know, until adulthood, who depended entirely upon Welfare for their livelihood, and, in the early 80's in North Dakota, that can't have amounted to much.
While I don't recall any names, I do remeber the boy's face. This was because he cried a lot. Which was because we, his fellow third-graders, were horrible to him. He and his sister arrived at school a few months after the year started (October, maybe, or November), with their gaunt faces and ratty, hand-me-down clothes. The rumor immediately got around that the girl had failed her incoming headlice inspection, and that the whole family had to be treated because they were all horribly infected (a note: I recently learned that headlice, like cockroaches, are fairly common in warm climates such as in Southern California, and, after a cleanup, no big deal. In the harsh climate of North Dakota, however, both are rare, and considered a sign of squalor and terrible hygiene, as far as polite society is concerned.). The children were teased mercilessly, despite the fact that they insisted it was untrue, which, based upon my recollections of the time, fuzzy as they are, I now believe.
As the Christmas break approached that year, we all prepared for our gift exchange. The limit at that time was probably $5 -- enough for 2 G.I. Joe or Star Wars figures, if I recall correctly. I don't recall what I gave, but it was likely Star Wars or Joe-related. Boys' gifts usually broke down simply: Star Wars stuff, G.I. Joe stuff, or sports-related stuff, and I wasn't much of a sports fan. Girls' gifts were probably Barbies or My Little Ponies -- who knows? Anyway, when the day of the Christmas party came, we gathered our desks in a wide circle, and drew numbers from a bag Mrs. Wagner had prepared. She asked our numbers, and brought us the corresponding gift, instructing us to open nothing until everyone had a gift. One of my friends, I don't recall which, received a suspiciously lumpy, pillow-shaped package. When we all opened our gifts, this friend cried out in dismay -- he'd received a tattered bag of old-style hard Christmas candy, clearly from the discount shelves at K-Mart. Despite Mrs. Wagner's shushing, he complained loudly, and we laughed long and hard at him until something odd occurred: this skinny, blond new kid jumped up from his desk in tears and ran into the hallway. The ridiculed present had been from him.
Sadly, it got worse. It wasn't enough that we'd embarrassed him in class. After school, as we all waited for the school busses to arrive, we accosted him. I remember vividly how it played out. He stood on the sidewalk, near the merry-go-round, wearing his stained and threadbare jacket, holding his little sister's hand. We descended like a pack of dogs, maybe six of us, maybe more, yelling at him about the present, shaking the sad bag of candy in the air in outrage. His sister immediately started to cry, as did he. He said, "You hate us because you think we have bugs in our hair." And we all laughed. And yelled more. We called him "poor," intending it as a scathing insult. And he and his sister continued to cry. The bag of candy ended up torn open, scattered everywhere, a teacher ushered us onto our busses, and we all went home for Christmas break.
I don't remember either of them at school after Christmas break was over. They probably were, but I know for certain they did not return the next year. The group of us were lectured after the break, but no one really took serious notice of the incident at the time. Mrs. Wagner told me she was especially disappointed in me -- that she expected more of me. It made me feel horrible, but, like everything else in the third grade, the feeling didn't last long. I now wish she had been more disappointed. I wish someone had called my parents -- then, at least, I'd have gotten a good spanking. I wish someone had explained to me that our society shits on the less fortunate among us -- the ones who can't afford the $5 gift exchange. But, at eight or nine, shouldn't I have known that already? All that time in CCD class, in the Cub Scouts -- apparently I learned nothing from either one (which adds to my defense for ultimately leaving both). I should have shown compassion, when the others showed ridicule. I should have defended him when the rest attacked. And I didn't.
It makes me sick to think about it -- to see that poor kid's face. What we did to him was . . . it makes me sick. I'm a grown-up now, a different person. And I would never do such a thing now. But, somehow, I can't forgive myself. Maybe the shame of this incident, this one crying eight-year-old, holding the hand of his little sister, is an important part of what makes me who I am. I'm far from the best person I could be, but I think I'm a compassionate person. I try to be. And I am forever sorry for what the eight-year-old me did. I hope that kid turned out okay. I hope I didn't ruin his Christmas. I hope he knows I am sorry, though I'm sure he does not.
Anyway, I think that is why the idea of gift exchanges make me feel a little green. Not everyone can afford that $15 gift -- there've been plenty of times when I could not. I don't want to ruin anyone's Christmas cheer, but, if it's cool with everyone else, I'll just sit and watch.