Memories of a very special Christmas gift presented to me ten years ago are still among the most inspiring and meaningful of my life.
I had the good fortune to be a volunteer teacher at a home for mentally retarded children, where my duties included helping the children with their normal daily routines, teaching music, reading to the children, and creating various forms of recreation. As I grew to know and love these special children, I realized that a very important part of their lives was being neglected, and that was when I began to teach the gospel to the most receptive and eager group of students I have ever known.
My eight students, who ranged in age from eight to sixteen, were so excited to learn about Jesus Christ that it was very difficult for me to control their enthusiasm. A whole new world was opening up to them, and despite their various capacities to learn, they did learn and respond, each in his own way. There was one exception, however, and his name was Freddy.
Freddy was fourteen years old, mildly retarded and severely emotionally disturbed. He had been abandoned when he was very young, as had many of the children at the home, and outside the people who lived or worked at the home, no one really cared about Freddy. This was the reason I allowed Freddy to become a member of the class, even though he was the center of every disruption imaginable. At times I felt like sending him out of the class, but I knew that rejection was not the answer to Freddy’s problems, so the class endured the situation.
It disturbed me that I was not able to get through to my little troublemaker. While the rest of my class had a concept of Jesus Christ, Heavenly Father, and what they represented, Freddy seemed oblivious to the whole thing. Each week it was my practice to present each child with a Bible verse that he could understand. While most of the children could not read, each one received a copy of the scripture to place among his personal belongings, so he could look at it or read it every day. Many times I would have the children draw pictures to represent the verse I had given them, and if they were not able to draw, I created something visual to correspond to the verse. Most of the children hung their verses and pictures above their beds so they could be reminded of it as they offered their evening prayer, which was a requirement in my class. Each time I gave Freddy his verse, he would tear it up in front of me. All in all it was very frustrating for me because I knew that Freddy was not as severely retarded as many of his classmates but he couldn’t or wouldn’t learn.
Seeking a solution to Freddy’s disruptions, I tried many forms of creative discipline, but nothing seemed to affect him. At times I had the urge to just shake him, but that would have accomplished nothing. Freddy was surely putting me to the test, and I was failing. I was running out of answers, I had already run out of patience, and I was beginning to seriously consider removing Freddy from the class.
As Christmas was approaching, I explained to my children the true meaning of Christmas. They were curious and very receptive. All except Freddy. Several days before Christmas, the entire home held a party for everyone: staff, volunteers, students, parents, and anyone else who wanted to come.
As the party progressed, I noticed Freddy was not to be seen. I searched for him and found him in his room, laboring over a very crumpled, worn-looking package that he was obviously wrapping by himself. I left him to his task and returned to the party. Shortly after, Freddy approached me and threw the package in my lap and ran away. When I opened the package, I found the most beautiful gift I have ever received. It was a ragged piece of coarse fabric, hand sewn at the top, with a piece of cork glued in the middle. It was a wall hanging, and the cork in the middle was to be used to tack the weekly Bible verse to. I was told that Freddy worked three months on the gift and the design was his own idea. It was indeed a labor of love, sacrifice, and above all patience, because I knew the frustrations Freddy must have suffered while making it. I also knew that in his own way Freddy understood what I had been trying to teach him, and in some ways, he understood even better than I.
Freddy now lives with our Heavenly Father, and with few exceptions, I am sure that he has been forgotten on earth. The gift he gave me still hangs in my home as it always will. It is a little older and much more tattered, but as I look at it I see Freddy and remember the sacrifice he made to teach me the virtue of patience. When I feel frustrated or want to give up, Freddy is there, gently nudging me to go on.
Freddy’s Christmas gift has changed my life, and the lesson it taught is deep within my heart. I am so very grateful to have had that very precious child as my teacher.