The Christmas Card
Stephen A. Peterson
Sylvia McCann (not her real name) came to Scecina Memorial High School from Atlanta, Georgia. Her father had been transferred by his company in July but according to her, it took months to settle into her new eastside Indianapolis home. Although Indianapolis and Atlanta were approximately the same size in population, Sylvia never thought she would be lonely. By the time she had been enrolled in school, Sylvia found herself longing to be back in Atlanta in her old neighborhood at the school that was smaller and intimate. To her, Scecina was bigger and the students, it seemed, could not understand her Southern accent.
No one at Scecina seemed to care if Sylvia felt welcomed or not. Back in Atlanta, Sylvia was involved as a cheerleader, a writer for the student paper and loved being a member of the mathematics club. Being in a large Indiana city and not knowing anyone plus being shy interfered with her making friends. Sylvia had those fair weather friends back home who asked her to help them with their math and science then never had anything to do with her once their goal was accomplished. However, when the times were tough, she could rely on her cheerleader friends and church members to soothe away any heartache.
When she walked into Sister Rita Clare’s class, she felt at ease. Of all the teachers, Sister welcomed her, called on her for her thoughts and praised her for excellence in composition. Despite Sister’s rigidity, Sylvia had a voice if only for 45 minutes each day. In her other though, she believed her thoughts were not very important. So she decided to just be content to sit in the back of the class and just be quiet as she did her work.
After being at Scecina for seven weeks and noticing their daughter’s demeanor, he parents were concerned that Sylvia would was not making any friends. Her parents decided to pay a visit to Sister Rita Clare to get her opinion as to what could be done on behalf of their daughter. They became familiar with Sister as a result of conversations with Sylvia. She recognized Sister’s excellence and interest in her writing skills. Sister Rita Clare, according to Sylvia, had become her only friend.
“Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. McCann! How may help you?”
“Sylvia, our daughter, seems to be having a hard time getting friends at Scecina. Before we enrolled her at Scecina, we had heard that Scecina has good academics and is a friendly school. We know that she does have problems. She’s shy and does not make friends easily.”
“I see,” Sister responded.
“In our conversations with Sylvia, she stated that she really likes your class. She says you’re tough but interested in excellence. And she can talk to you more than any other teacher or student.”
“I appreciate Sylvia’s writing skills. I like being honest with students. I tell my classes that being able to write effectively is important in the communicating of one’s thoughts and ideas. But you are here to try to help your daughter adjust to Scecina. Our students are very good young people. We have some involved students. Is Sylvia involved in anything?”
“Right now, she is not,” responded her mother.
“Ah! How about if we get her involved? May I offer a suggestion?”
“Sure. We are open to whatever would help our daughter be more comfortable while she’s here.”
“What if I encourage her to join the editorial staff of the student newspaper? I believe it will open up avenues and accessibility to other students.”
“Do you think Sylvia will go along with this, Sister?”
“I can only try. However, if this doesn’t work, I have other ways I can help Sylvia. But, with your help, I think this will work. Sylvia is a very good writer Mr. and Mrs. McCann.”
“We think your idea is a good one. We will do what we can at home to encourage her. She doesn’t know we are here. So could you not tell her we visited?”
“Sure, that is easy!”
“One other thing, Sister, do you think the reason why Sylvia has a difficult time finding friends is because of her mixed racial background?”
“To be honest with you Mr. and Mrs. McCann, I didn’t know what her racial or ethnic background is. All I knew was that she is a very bright, pretty girl. I only came to realize her background when you bother walked into my classroom. This does not matter to me anyway. I have quite a few students of color and mixed racial backgrounds. Whatever a person’s racial or ethnic groups are does not matter to me. Your daughter is viewed by me as a child of God. She will be treated with dignity and respect. I teach that also. Students in my class are to look at each other and ask themselves ‘how would I want to be treated?’ I believe in the near future we will witness a change in America with regards to race. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech this past summer is going to change the mindset in this country. That is why I have my students read his “I Have A Dream Speech” in my classes wherein some teachers are reluctant to do so. I don’t think we will be here to see it but I truly believe that race relations will become markedly better—with a few bumps in the road—in this country. I believe in about 100 years what I see before me now—a biracial couple—will be the rule and not the exception.”
Mr. and Mrs. McCann sat in awe. “Sister, you are the first person we’ve ever encountered bold enough to speak to us in that manner,” responded Sylvia’s mother. “I’m mixed Indian and African. My mother is Creek Indian and my father an African. My husband is Irish and German. Maybe that’s why Sylvia is so shy. The school she came from was a small Catholic school of all African-Americans. This school is mostly Euro-Americans kids. Even in the African-American community down in Atlanta we had to live out in the suburbs to avoid both groups because of their attitudes.”
“As I said Mrs. McCann, I would never have known that. I have not been told anything. Sylvia, as I said before, is a very bright, pretty girl. I did not know what her background was until now. But it does not matter. She is a child of God.”
“Thank, Sister,” Mr. McCann said. “We love our daughter and all of our children. Sylvia is the oldest of three. And she is our only daughter. She’s the apple of my eye. I tell her that every chance I have. I tell the boys that but a daughter are really special to a dad. You understand, Sister.”
“Yes, I do Mr. McCann. Remember, I was once a daughter, too! My father told me I was special to him, too! It is good that we had this visit. I’m glad I met Sylvia’s mom and dad. I think this will work,” commented Sister. “I will keep you informed. Thank you for coming once again!”
The next day there stood Sister outside the door in her usual position herding students in her classroom. “Alright class I read your compositions. Overall, they were very good!”
As each student eagerly took their composition from Sister, it was possible, based upon facial expressions, to tell who received passing as opposed to non-passing grades. Sylvia had a surprised look on her face.
“Miss McCann, may I see you after class, please?” Sister announced.
Not knowing what an audience with Sister meant. Sylvia seemed to have no reaction. At least, most of the class seemed to think she might be in some kind of trouble. What it was no one knew.
The topic this day was Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’. A classical Greek playwright and a Sister Rita Clare favorite—it seemed.
“Mr. Nelson, what did you get from having read the play, Antigone?”
“Ah, she was a great woman?” giggled Paul Nelson.
“Mr. Nelson, did you read the assignment for today?”
“I read it, Sister, but I just could not really understand what was going on with Antigone or anyone else.”
“Well, Mr. Nelson, that’s fair assessment. What do you think Miss McCann?”
I learned this from “Pete”, Steve Peterson, that ‘Antigone’ means ‘one against men’ when translated from Greek to English. Pete knows Greek. When I found that out I realized that Antigone is Oedipus’s ultimate accomplishment. She is the one who restored her family’s reputation and rekindled the fading glory of Oedipus that once shone over all the people in Thebes. She had the characteristics of her father: decisiveness, courage, pride, and a sense of righteousness, and through these traits she was able to recapture the respect and support of the people, just like Oedipus once did, through her achievements even though she was a woman.”
“That is very good, Miss McCann! Very good, indeed! Did everyone hear what she just stated?”
When the bell rang, Sylvia remained in class to respond to whatever it was that Sister wanted to see her for. The general consensus was that it was not going to be good. But within a week, Sylvia was a member of the student newspaper staff writing what might be described as human interest stories. At the end of the month, it was learned that Sylvia joined the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) as well. She met members in the groups who seemed to welcome her but secretly wished Sylvia would just go away.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas break, Sylvia secretly began taking sleeping pills just to get some sleep. Though she appeared to be respected by students and teachers, she felt that she was being isolated.
The Thanksgiving break was a great time for most Scecina students. Out of school for five days, many went to be with family members and catch up on school or personal projects. When school resumed, Sylvia decided to meet with Sister.
“What’s wrong with me? No one likes me! No one in this school talks to me. No one has invited me to a party. The only time anyone will get with me is when they need help with math or English. I just feel so bad, Sister!” as tears trickled down her face.
“Sylvia! Sylvia!” as Sister moved in then held her tear filled face up. “You are a wonderful, beautiful person. I’ve heard your fellow students talk about you. They speak very well of you. Some of our students are just as shy as you. They don’t know how to approach you. But I know they like you. Who wouldn’t?”
“I just don’t understand!”
“Sylvia, give them a chance! Our students are pretty good. A few are what you might refer to as snobs but most are genuinely good. Sylvia, my child, I will pray for you. I will pray you will be patient. Things are going to work out. You’ll see!”
“Thanks again, Sister. You’re the only friend I have at Scecina.”
“You’re wrong. I know my students. They’re good Catholic young men and women. Be patient child!”
“Thank you again, Sister! I love you! You’re a good person who understands! I know some of the students don’t like you because you’re tough and they don’t like that.”
“I know. But I’m a tenacious teacher because I must prepare them for the world. I really do not worry about that. Now go home, be with your family and have a blessed day!”
Sylvia left Sister’s classroom. Two days following her meeting, anxiety overtook her once again. Nothing seemed to change for her. Arriving home she tossed her books on her bed. She went to her desk then decided that life was not worth living anymore. “Nobody really loves me nor do they care about me”> it was at that moment she decided to end it all. But how to do it?
“Maybe a car or truck will hit me? Yes, that’s how I’ll do it.”
She returned to her desk then wrote a note to her parents. As she left, she would leave it where they would find it—in the mailbox. Five minutes following her thoughts, the note was complete. Through her tears, she walked out the front door to place the note in the mailbox. When she opened the mailbox, she was presented with a pile of letters.
She pulled the stack out to see who they were from. There was the telephone bill, advertisement for snow tires…and then there was one addressed to her. She pulled the barely sealed envelope open. It was a Hallmark welcome card. It was a card from David O’Connor a member of Sister Rita Clare’s English class. The class she was in. When she opened the card it had the following:
My name is David O’Connor. I’ve seen you in English class. I’ve been meaning
to welcome you to Scecina. I’ve read your stories in the student paper. They’re really
good! I really liked your story about being a friend. I was hoping you could help me with
points about dealing with anxiety—especially taking tests. When I take tests, I really get
scared. I think you could help me. You’re smart and all. I really like old movies. One of
your stories about movies. I think we can be really good friends and help each other
deal with our shyness. What do you think? Can we be friends? I’ll see you at school on
David “Dave” O’Connor
Stunned Sylvia looked at the card then rested her arm on the mailbox: CAN WE BE FRIENDS? Sylvia read that request several times. “Did Sister put him up to sending me this? Nah! I don’t know.” But she felt very good. “Sure, he does!
Sylvia returned the other letters to the mailbox except David O’Connor’s card and her own suicide note. As soon as she entered her bedroom, she read his card again. Maybe Sister is right the kids at Scecina and its teachers are really okay. This is the best Christmas gift I have ever gotten in my life! Thank you God for this important precious gift!!
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