A Night With Horatio
What I learned about Christmas presents in my first year of teaching.
Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.
It was my first year of teaching English at Eleanor Roosevelt Junior High School in Manhattan, N.Y. Things were going fine, and I was especially enjoying my ninth-grade class, a mini United Nations of ethnicities and accents. This particular class was clever, always full of creativity and surprises. It was my favorite class.
Winter vacation was suddenly upon us. The kids were excited, of course, and things in school became a little crazy as everyone counted down the days. Our last pre-vacation day was Wednesday, and I was worried that it would be hard to maintain classroom decorum until then.
On Monday, two days before the grand release from school, I was sitting in the teacher workroom with some veteran teachers, who definitely knew the ropes. One of them, my chosen mentor, Hope, advised me, “Don’t worry about classroom management this week. But here’s some advice,” she noted, “Be sure to bring a big shopping bag to school on Wednesday. Most of the kids know you’re Jewish, but they think Chanukah is simply the Jewish Christmas, with presents like they get. Those kids are sure to bring you little Christmas presents, and you’ll need to carry it all home. Get ready for lots of drugstore perfume, address books, and faux jeweled bracelets.”
Thoughts of little gifts danced in my head. Fortunately, I was already a big fan of faux jeweled bracelets.
I took Hope’s advice and brought a sturdy shopping bag and a backpack to school on Wednesday and placed them in the teacher workroom, hoping that all my perfume, address books, and bracelets would fit inside. Strangely, in my classes on Tuesday and Wednesday, even my outgoing ninth graders were unusually subdued, not boisterous and jolly, as I expected them to be before the holiday. I couldn’t figure it out.
A few times during the day, I jealously assessed the bags of gifts the other teachers were storing in the teacher workroom. I, on the other hand, had not received a single gift. I was terribly embarrassed and disappointed. I was crushed. I had assumed that my students liked me, but obviously, I was wrong.
Hope noticed my melancholia and tried to cheer me up.
“Maybe because you’re Jewish, they think Christmas gifts will hurt your feelings or insult you. Don’t be sad.” But I still felt awful. It was worse than being dumped by a boyfriend; I had been group-dumped. Resolutely, determined to rise above my misery, I made it through the rest of the afternoon, and when the final bell rang, I walked bravely into the teacher workroom, folded my empty shopping bag, and stuffed it into my backpack.
As I headed out of the workroom, one of my (up until that day) favorite ninth graders, Eduardo Reyes, stopped me. He was accompanied by a lot of my students. Eduardo spoke, while I stood there, stunned.
“You’re not like the other teachers,” he said, “so we got together to get you something special.” He handed me a large shoebox, with holes punched in the top. “We chipped in and bought you a hamster,” he proclaimed. “We named him Horatio.”
A hamster! I was completely nonplused. Naturally, I cried, and my students were elated. Eduardo told me that the decision had been difficult, and he hoped they made the right choice. I assured the students that they had given me the perfect gift. “Í love hamsters!” I lied. Everyone was overjoyed.
Except my husband, that is. On the way home, I bought a bag of wood shavings and hamster food. That night, because I had not yet bought a cage, I put Horatio to sleep under our bed, in his box. You guessed it: Horatio chewed his way out and was somewhere in the apartment, no doubt gnawing a leg off of one of our chairs. I had never owned a hamster and wasn’t sure if I wanted one now. My husband made this simple, concise declaration: “I refuse to live in an apartment with a loose rodent.”
We finally found Horatio in our foyer, trying to squeeze under the front door. I managed to grab him, and I knew what I had to do. I called my friend, Edith, who lived on the first floor of our building. I hadn’t been sure about keeping Horatio, but I was sure about keeping my husband.
“Okay. We’ll take him!” Edith greed. “We’ll get a cage and one of those wheels that hamsters like.” In five minutes, with Horatio intact in an unchewed box, I was at Edith’s door to make the hamster drop.
Horatio’s life was about to change for the better. Edith’s husband, Howard, doted on him. Horatio soon luxuriated in his lavish new digs, and I had saved my marriage. I checked on Horatio daily during the remainder of winter break, and he was clearly in hamster heaven. When school re-convened in January, my students asked about him. I honestly told them he was very happy.