Christmas in January


With reluctant steps, Maria climbed onto the school bus. Children darted here and there, greeting their classmates and filling the air with excited chatter.

“Hi, Maria,” a voice called out.

Maria didn’t answer but determinedly made her way to an empty seat and slid over to the window. She had been dreading this first day back at school after vacation. After the Christmas holidays, students at Groveland Elementary always brought their favorite Christmas presents to school for a special show-and-tell. Maria had nothing to bring. Her father didn’t work much during the winter, and there had not been money for more than a few homemade gifts.

Maria’s parents were field-workers who traveled from town to town in their old pickup. She had been overjoyed last fall when her dad had decided to stay in Groveland, taking whatever farm work he could find through the winter, because she could go to the same school all year and have time to make friends.

But making friends turned out to be harder than she thought. Maria’s face flushed just remembering the class Christmas party.

“Cookies? Who brings cookies as a grab bag gift?” Shane had jeered. “Boy, are you dumb.”

There were giggles too. Only Warren, whose name she had drawn, didn’t seem to mind.

The bus lurched to a stop, and a new wave of children rushed in. Warren, who was among the newcomers, plumped down in the seat next to Maria. She stared out the window.

“What did you bring to show, Maria?” he asked.

“None of your business,” she told him.

“Oh.” Warren looked down.

Why was I so rude? Maria wondered. But her voice was still harsh as she attempted to explain. “If you must know, I didn’t bring anything.”

“Didn’t you get anything this year for Christmas?” Warren sounded genuinely distressed.

Maria turned from the window. “I got a doll, but I left it at home.”

She had named the made-over doll, Bethlinda, and she loved it better than any of her other modest gifts under their tree. “Everybody would laugh if I showed my doll.” Tears sparkled in Maria’s eyes. “She’s used.”

Warren looked uncomfortable for a moment; then he reached into his pocket. “Want to show this electronic football game? Tell them it’s yours. I don’t mind. Really.”

“What are you going to show?” Maria asked.

Warren smiled as he pulled a small plastic box out of another pocket.

“Here’s a crystal I grew from my chemistry set over the holidays.” He drew back the cotton. “I brought it for the science display.”

“Well, OK.” Maria flashed one of her rare, brief smiles. “I’ll show your game, if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead. I’ll show you how to play it.”

The bus bounced along the gravel-covered county roads, stopping every so often to pick up more children. Maria braced herself against the jolts and concentrated on the game. Soon she and Warren were beeping and buzzing a red point of light back and forth across their hand-held football stadium. Warren scored more and more often as Maria’s thoughts began to stray.

“You have to keep your mind on the game,” Warren said. “I’m not this good. Look at the score—fifty-six to fourteen!”

“Sorry,” Maria answered. “I was just thinking about something.” She had remembered the song they sang in Primary, “Dare to Do Right.” She didn’t feel very daring right now, only confused.

The bus pulled up onto the blacktop highway about five miles from town.

If I take Warren’s game and tell the class it’s mine, she thought, it will be a lie. And that would be wrong. But maybe the kids will ask to play it with me, and I’ll make some friends …

The bus rolled to a stop. Whoosh! The door swung open. Children squealed, shoved, and surged off the bus and into the school.

“Quiet, children. Quiet,” Miss Adams cautioned when her class was inside the classroom.

After the class settled down, Miss Adams asked who wanted to be first. Thirty hands shot up.

“Maria, we don’t hear from you very often. Why don’t you start off today?”

With a pounding heart, Maria made her way to the front of the class, clutching Warren’s game.

She cleared her throat, “I didn’t bring a Christmas gift. My best present came in January—today—on the bus.” She paused. “Warren loaned me his football game, because I didn’t have anything to show. I figure that’s what a friend would do, and a friend is the best present anyone could ever have.”

Not daring to look anyone in the eye, Maria hurried back to her seat. The expected titters never came. The class was silent for a moment; then the clapping began.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Maren Scott