Tomorrow is Christmas so I thought I’d post one of my stories written long ago and published in the “Christian Home and School” magazine. It’s a bit long, but it’s one of my favorites.
The predicted snow plastered the windows of Maddy Clark’s classroom drawing the students attention away from the inexperienced but earnest first year language arts teacher. She tried to coax from her seventh graders a meaningful wrap-up to a writing unit on ‘heroes.’ Little did she know that she was fighting an uphill battle that day since it was the last class period of the last day before Christmas vacation. The students were expecting fun but Maddy expected meaningful discussion.
“You’ll be my hero, Miss Clark, if we can have a party…” said Mark from his seat by the frosty windows.
“Yeh, Mr. DeWit gave us presents,” chirped in Ashley from the seat behind Mark.
“Just a candy cane,” said Mark with a grumble.
Like the storm cranking up outside, Maddy’s class was getting ready to burst in anticipation of the coming holiday break. The next forty minutes would crumble into chaos if she didn’t take charge soon.
“Now, class…” She raised the volume a little bit. “We’ve been talking about heroes…”
Ashley piped in, “I’m cold.”
“You’ll be fine. Now about those heroes -,” said Maddy desperately trying to stick with the lesson plan.
“The wind is coming right in. The curtains are moving!” Maddy glanced at Ashley and then at Mark sitting in the seat in front of her, not so slyly moving the curtains with his ruler.
“Woooo …. wooooosh….”
“Mark! Stop!” She clenched her jaw and proceeded in her strongest teacher voice. “Describe for me some of the qualities of a he- ,”
She stopped. Only a handful of her students were actually paying attention to her. Most were absorbed in their own discussions. Desperation quickly rose from deep within her. She shouted, “I CAN GIVE DETENTIONS ON THE DAY BEFORE VACATION, … okay. ” She regretted the tacked on ‘okay.’ She also regretted the fact that the door was open and her frustration overflowed into the hall. Embarrassed, she calmly walked over to the door, closed it and turned to face the class. A hand was in the air.
“Ashley?” she said.
“What’s that thing on your desk?”
“That funny looking metal thing.”
“What’s that stuff stickin’ out of the top?” Ashley pointed to a group of metal wires poking up from the back of the metal stable. Shiny, thin metal figures hung from each one.
“A heavenly host,” Maddy replied.
“Huh?” said a puzzled Ashley.
“Angels.” Maddy gave her an unprofessional roll of the eyes.
“Oh,” said Ashley. “Mr. De Wit has angels hanging from his lights.”
“That’s nice,” Maddy said, tired of hearing about De Wit’s Christmas fun.
“Where d’ ja get it?”
“From a friend.” Her curt answers indicated that no matter what, she was going to get back to ‘heroes.’
Ashley pressed on. “When d’ ja get it?”
“When I was a kid.”
“You were a kid?” Mark said. He looked around the room pleased to do his part in distracting the determined teacher.
“Yes, a long time ago – I was about your age.”
“Do you believe in angels, Miss Clark?” Ashley said.
“What’s with you and angels, anyway, Ashley?” said Mark.
Ashley rolled her eyes at Mark. “Well, like my neighbor…” The last syllable floated off to the ceiling while Ashley collected her thoughts and said, “My neighbor’s cousin lives in some city like Chicago and like, her mother was visiting a friend in Iowa and this friend’s old college roommate stopped and picked up a hitchhiker – I don’t know why. She just did. And after they rode down the road for awhile, well, then they got a flat tire and were stopped by the side of the road. And some mean looking guy stopped too, and walked up to the car. He looked at the girl driving and then he looked in the back seat, you know, at the hitchhiker, and got this scared look on his face…” She paused to take a breath. “He, like turned around and almost ran back to his car. The girl driver got real scared too. She looked back at the hitchhiker and …” Ashley whispered, “He was gone!”
“Gone?” asked Mark, eyes open wide.
“That’s what she said. I think it was an angel, don’t you, Miss Clark? Do you believe in angels?” For the first time that class period, it was quiet. Ashley’s angel story had done what Maddy’s heroes had failed to do, bring order from chaos, which lasted for about eight seconds when twelve hands shot in the air and ten other students leaped in with their own versions of ‘angel mysteries.’
“My mom said – “
”There was this guy-“
”I was babysitting one night -“
”My minister said – “
”On TV once, I saw -“
Everyone wanted to get into the discussion. Everyone had a story to tell, not about heroes, but angels. The voices swelled up and crashed over her like a wave – and Maddy gave in. She gave up her plan and dove in with a story of her own. It was a story from her childhood that was, in some ways, like today’s class – in chaos.
Maddy recalled a foggy December night long ago when she and her family were introduced to the story of the Messiah, sent to bring shalom, peace to a chaotic creation. Like Ashley’s angel story, it stilled a storm. So, completely unplanned and deliciously spontaneous, Maddy told the class how God used a special person to deliver a message of peace to Maddy’s desperate family.
With sudden drama she exclaimed, “There I was…” Her hands floated in front of her as if trying to calm the storm of stories coming from the class as she began. She spoke softly as she began to tell her angel story. “I was upstairs in my bedroom when I heard the bad news.” Bad news grabbed the attention of some of the students.
“I shared a bedroom with my little sister, Katie, and what we liked to do instead of going to bed was spy on our parents!” Maddy’s eyebrows arched upward.
“How d’ ja do that?” Mark said.
“We’d perch over the heat register in my bedroom which was right over the kitchen in the back of the house. We could hear everything that was going on. The sound came out of the register like an intercom.” She nodded her head in the direction of the box hanging on the wall. “It was great fun if we didn’t get caught. Once, I dropped a marble down the register. KABONG! My mom yelled, ‘Madeleine Anne and Katie! You’re s’pose to be sleeping.’ Oops….” Maddy grinned. “We could hear everything.”
Mark said, “Your name is Madeleine?”
Maddy winked. “I was about your age and I needed to know everything of course,” She looked sideways at Mark. “but I didn’t want to hear any talk about dying.”
“Someone was dying? That was the bad news?” Ashley said.
Maddy nodded. “There was a whole lot of talk about death and dying…” She wait a few seconds and bit her bottom lip. “… and crying and arguing going on around the kitchen table.” Everyone was listening now as Maddy Clark cracked open her life’s door and allowed her students to take a peek.
“Who died, Miss Clark?” said Mark.
“You see, my little sister, Katie, was sick – really sick. Some kind of virus they said. They took her to the hospital and everything. She was supposed to get better in the hospital. Right?” Ashley nodded.
“I was so sorry I eavesdropped. I didn’t want to know the things they were crying and yelling about. The longer my sister was in the hospital the worse things got. I didn’t need to listen at the register. I heard the fights through the pillow I held over my head.”
Her chin quivered, suggesting that even though she had regained control of her class, she was about to lose control herself. She remembered that the longer Katie was in the hospital the greater the turmoil in her home became. Those were bad times.
“So, who was it, Miss Clark, the one who … died? Your little sister?” Mark asked again. Maddy looked deeply into Mark’s eyes.
“Stop interrupting!” Ashley said. Her disapproving bark melted into sympathy when she turned to her teacher and said, “Go ahead, Miss Clark.”
Maddy slipped into a smile and said, “Thanks, Ashley.” She continued. “We had this neighbor. She lived in the house behind ours. Her backyard and our backyard were adjacent.” She waited for Mark’s inevitable question about the meaning of the word ‘adjacent.’ It didn’t come. “She was really – .”
“Weird?” said Mark.
“Uh, interesting, or maybe quirky would be a better word,” Maddy said. “She was very creative, an artist, I guess. She made sculptures – mostly out of metal. She could weld things! She made this nativity scene.” Maddy held it up.
“Well, this neighbor, Alice, had some form of cancer and was going through something called chemotherapy, to help her get better.”
Ashley’s hand shot up, then she said, “My mom’s friend’s sister had chemotherapy and she got really sick from it.”
“That’s too bad,” said Maddy.
“And, she lost all her hair!” said Ashley.
“About that time Alice lost her’s too. But we got used to it that way, because she was at our house all the time. She was a good friend.”
“Okay! Okay! What about the angel? You know – the angel?” Mark spit out the questions.
“Ah, yes…” Maddy rubbed her chin and gazed out over the class, “the angel… a messenger from God…”
“One night I was in my room – alone of course. Katie had been in the hospital for a few weeks. She couldn’t breath. She was hooked up to all kinds of machines and tubes. She wasn’t doing very well.” Maddy cleared her throat. “It was just my mom and me at home.”
Maddy’s voice took on a ominous tone. “It was a foggy, misty, dreary night and I was looking out of my window down into the backyard. Suddenly, the backyard light popped on. Something was out there. I couldn’t tell what. The halo of light barely penetrated the dense fog.” Slowly, deliberately, almost whispering, Maddy went on. “A figure emerged … from the trees… out of the darkness … I couldn’t see much, but as it gradually penetrated the small circle of light I saw a… a… white robe shimmering in the light … and then a halo… and then the wings…” Her voice trailed off.
Ashley shivered, then scrunched around in her seat and settled forward, chin propped up by her hands resting on her desk. “The angel…,” she whispered to Mark.
“Shhhhh… ,” he hissed back.
“This – whatever it was- headed right for our backdoor… I heard a knock….”
“D’ja listen at the register?” Mark asked.
Maddy nodded and then looked around at the class. “The stress of Katie being in the hospital was getting to all of us and now this. I heard my mom say, ‘Oh, my…!’ and then nothing. It was just me and my mom, you know – all alone, at night.” Intensity grew in her voice. “I crept out of my room, tiptoed down the hall and down the stairs. I was sooo scared!
“The bright kitchen lights blinded me when I peeked into the room. I thought I saw my mom crying. I inched farther out into the room for a better look and I saw my mom crying… and laughing… and hugging a bald headed angel…. Alice!”
“Your neighbor was an angel?” Mark said.
“Shhhhhhh…,” Ashley said.
“Alice saw me and in her kind way said, ‘Shalom.’ And then in typical bubbly Alice-style she told us all about making angel costumes for her church’s Christmas pageant and thought she’d try one on … and on and on she talked…” Maddy took a breath, “and then Alice said, ‘I thought of you.’ Maddy reached over to her desk and picked up the metal nativity scene. She held it out to the class. “‘I have a gift for you. Let me tell you about it.’ That’s what Alice said to me and my mom. So the three of us, me, my mom and an ‘angel’ sat around table laughing, crying, talking and praying as Alice told us the story behind the figures in the nativity scene.”
“That night changed my life,” said Maddy just as the bell for the beginning of Christmas vacation sounded. She had to stop now, but she knew she’d somehow continue telling the story of Christmas through the things she did with her students.
As the students surged past Maddy standing by the doorway, Mark and Ashley hung back.
“Whatever happened to… Katie… your sister?”
Maddy’s face lit up. “Ask her yourself.” Maddy grabbed the hand of a young woman standing in the hall, waiting to go Christmas shopping with her sister.
“Mark and Ashley, I’d like you to meet my little sister, Katie.
“You’re alive!” Ashley blurted.
Katie laughed, “Yes, I am.” She looked at Maddy. “You told them about Alice, eh?”
“Yep,” she said. “A little angel story is just what we needed to make it through the day.” Maddy grinned as Mark and Ashley wished the Clark sisters Merry Christmas and rushed off to catch their bus.