I was struggling to pay bills and to provide the most basic needs for my small children. Once, my life had been that of an average middle class woman. I was raised in rural Ohio, where my dad fulfilled his goal to provide a comfortable and moral life for his family. When I was nineteen, I even participated in the Miss Ohio Pageant, and later graduated cum laude bfrom a leading university. My future had looked bright. Now, I was so financially stressed that I could provide food for my children only because I rented a quarter acre garden plot. I grew and harvested vegetables and preserved them for later. My husband, children, and I had moved to beautiful West Virginia, but he and I soon separated. I was alone in a new place, where people were friendly, but where we were definitely outsiders.
I was a teacher in the quaint town of Eleanor. I loved my job. The students were polite and obedient; their parents were supportive. But now I regretted having chosen a career of service rather than one with a more lucrative salary. The constant pressure of trying to make ends meet, laboring hard (when the canning and freezing of produce was completed, I was carrying firewood), being a very good teacher, and raising my two- and four-year-old with no support were taking a toll on me. Still, I maintained an upbeat demeanor. And, then, it was Christmas season. How could I afford to buy gifts for my children? I had given up working part-time jobs at night; the pay was so low that with babysitting costs I didn’t come out ahead.
One weekend, the children were with their dad. The only sound in the house was the heat pump straining to keep up with below-freezing cold. As usual I was bone tired; my muscles were tense and my jaw clenched. I needed to get out, do some grownup fun things. I would attend the Parents Without Partners dance that evening.
I began getting ready to go out. Makeup covered the fatigue. Nice skirt, spring weight, but that was okay – I’d wear a long wool coat. Matching blouse, check. Now, the shoes. I seldom dressed up, so the tan pumps must be pushed to the back of the closet. I looked for them everywhere in the closet. I finally found one of the shoes, just one.
The pursuit became frenzied. I started flinging things out of the closet. “Where is the shoe?” I shouted to no one. “Just once, I’m doing something for me, but, oh no!”
This was more than a lost shoe or a failed evening out. I dropped onto the bed, sobbing. My forehead throbbed and my face burned. “Nothing works out,” I cried. “Nothing is ever going to work out! I’m trapped!” I was sobbing; the pain in my head was excruciating. There it was – I was alone with two small children, and not enough resources to move or to learn a new career. When the tantrum passed, I lay back on the bed, weak and defeated.
I don’t know how long I lay there, but finally, I did the only thing I could do. I got up. Walking down the hall my legs were so weak, I slumped to my knees. I dropped my forehead to the floor. “God,” I prayed in a whisper, “Help me.” That was it, just “Help me.” I stood up. I went to the kitchen, splashed water on my face, and left for the dance.
Soon after that emotional evening, three of my teacher pals and I were eating lunch in an empty classroom. One of the teachers, Gary Baswell, was a seasoned patron of flea markets. I thought he might be able to give me some guidance about selling my one-carat diamond cluster ring.
He stroked his bushy black mustache, as he and the other two teachers looked at the ring on my outstretched hand. “I don’t know about expensive things like that,” he said.
“It shows,” teased young Susan Bonner.
“You won’t get nearly what it’s worth,” warned middle-aged Betty Gearson.
“I know,” I said, “but I need to sell it so I can buy the children Christmas presents.”
The end-to-lunch bell rang, ending our conversation. Unbeknownst to us, Callie Harrell, another teacher, had heard us through a slight opening of the door between where we ate and her office.
The morning of the last day of school before Christmas break, I rushed into the tiny teachers’ lounge to grab my mail from its pigeonhole. Jostling my briefcase, purse, and lunch bag, I pulled one glove off with my teeth and reached into my mailbox. Teachers who seldom if ever came to the lounge had gathered at the door. There was only one piece of mail in my box, a card in a white envelope addressed, “Mel.”
“Open it,” Susan Bonner said. When I turned to look at her, I realized there were quite a few teachers watching me. “Open it now,” several people said.
I slid a cheery Christmas card from the envelope. When I opened the card, cash almost spilled onto the floor. Susan rushed to catch the bills as they escaped. The card was signed, “Yes, Virginia Mel, there is a Santa Claus. The Staff and Faculty of George Washington Middle School.” Fighting against tears and for words, I turned to my fellow teachers, “I … I don’t know what to say … I am so grateful …”
Tom Moss, the physical education teacher, wearing a fluffy down jacket with his habitual gym shorts, spoke from the door, “You don’t have to say anything, Mel. Just you and your kids have a merry Christmas.” He stepped into the lounge and gave me a quick hug. The warning bell for five minutes before class starts rang. Teachers hugged me as they streamed to their stations; I was overwhelmed. Mrs. Guthrie, with whom I seldom had a conversation, whispered in my ear, “We wanted your children to have a merry Christmas, Mrs. Joesting.”
Susan stuffed the envelope into my purse as we rushed down the hall.
“I don’t understand, how did they know?”
Children darted around us as they hurried to class. “Do you remember when you asked Gary about a good place to pawn your ring?” Susan asked. “Well, Callie Harrell was in her office and heard the whole thing. She started the movement.”
The Principal had unlocked my classroom door; he stood there while my students filed in. I expected a reprimand for arriving late. Our rigid leader leaned down, “Every single person on the staff and faculty donated,” he said, “including the cooks and the janitor.” There was a little smile on his usually stoic face as he turned to walk down the hall.
I bought Christmas gifts for my children. Still, life after that wasn’t a Hallmark movie. Even that day, my son threw a tantrum and knocked over the Christmas tree. But, despite the hardships we experienced, our lives were better because that Christmas gift did more than buy presents for one season.I had experienced a miracle. Many of the faculty and staff were also struggling that Christmas, but they were the miracle in my life then and for a lifetime. I don’t think miracles are like the parting of a sea or a burning bush. They are the everyday miracles that often come from other people.
One cold December I had only enough faith to cry, “God, help me,” and God nodded.