An Atari Kind of Christmas
I just knew everyone could see straight through me… After a brief jackhammer like pounding, my pulse began to slow, and I could feel the fire leaving my face. My body was like rubber, and I felt like I had just walked a tightrope over a sea of piranhas.
- The holiday break was over. I could still hear the sound of the bell ringing in my ears when Ms. Hurto made the announcement that would cause my stomach to plummet to my feet.
“Everyone, put your chairs in a circle,” she began. “We are all going to take turns telling what we got for Christmas.”
The sounds of almost twenty, seventh-grade girls sliding metal chair legs across the pale green, industrial tile almost drowned out the sound of the roaring in my ears. With sweaty palms I gripped the back of the bright-green, hard, plastic chair. I was sweating.
Horrified, I wondered if I had remembered to apply my deodorant that morning. I looked down toward my chest and sniffed discretely, but I could only detect the familiar smell of the choir room; the sweet aroma of Ms. Hurto’s perfume, mimeograph copies, old books, and that singed smell that old heaters emanate. Physically, I was frozen, but my mind raced.
Someone came in late. A burst of cold air blew my unruly auburn hair out of my face, cooling the warm moisture that had formed on my brow. The door to the portable classroom slammed shut loudly, but Ms. Hurto pretended not to see the late arrival.
“Come on everyone, chop-chop!” Ms. Hurto’s sing-song voice carried across the room. She had eyes like deep, dark puddles that glimmered when she smiled, which was often. I stared at them now, silently pleading with her to change her mind about this seemingly harmless activity.
Ms. Hurto didn’t take the hint. She looked at me and smiled briefly, before speaking to another student. She was smiling again. Her perfect, white teeth were framed by full lips that were lined with a shade slightly darker than her pink lip gloss. She wore the heavy, mask-like make-up of the 1980’s well. Her dark hair was teased into glorious heights, a feat all of her adolescent female students envied.
“Come now, everyone—we are waiting.” She really wasn’t waiting, there were still several of us who hadn’t made our way to the circle. She stood at her desk, probably taking attendance, and did not seem to notice my lack of enthusiasm.
I reluctantly pushed my chair to the circle. Actually, it was slightly behind the circle. I hoped I would somehow miss my turn.
My classmates chattered excitedly, happy to see each other this first morning following the holiday break. I sat on the edge of the group, listening.
A pudgy, bubbly girl with bright red hair was gushing over Melissa Leady, who was probably the most popular girl in seventh-grade.
“Melissa, like, ohmygawd, how do you like, get your eyelashes to look like that? They are totally awesome!” The other girls who surrounded Melissa followed suit, demanding to know how her eyelashes could be so perfect.
Melissa seemed flattered. “Well, I mean I just put on mascara then I use a straight pin to separate my lashes. Separating them is important, you know.” She smiled and tossed her light brown curls, then adjusted her new neon-orange blouse. It was off-shoulder, and the neon-green tank top underneath left no question that it was just like the ones worn in the wildly-popular movie, Flashdance.
Ms. Hurto abruptly slid her desk chair into the circle and clapped her hands.
“Okay everyone, let’s begin!” Melissa took her chair next to Ms. Hurto. “Melissa, let’s begin with you. Tell us about at least one item you got for Christmas.”
Melissa beamed. In her defense, she seemed to be a genuinely nice girl. She couldn’t help it that she just happened to be the queen bee of seventh grade. She was of course, happy to lead the discussion.
“Well, I got a lot of totally awesome clothes. But, I am happiest about the fact that my parents got for me the one thing I wanted most of all—an Atari!”
Everyone clapped, and her closest friends congratulated her. The Atari was THE gift of the season. Everyone longed to play Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in their own homes, not just in the arcades.
As the rest of my classmates began to describe their coveted Christmas gifts, I began to plot my escape. I prayed class would end early. I wondered if I could make myself throw-up, that would ensure my trip to the nurse’s office. Or, if I held my breath maybe I could pass out—no. Too much attention, I would absolutely hate for everyone to stare at me while I was unconscious. I finally excused myself to go to the bathroom, but could only stay so long before assumptions would be made and I would surely be teased for having to go “number 2” at school, in the Choir Room bathroom nonetheless. Resigned, I returned to the circle, I had run out of scenarios. I could hear the girl next to me listing her numerous gifts.
“Karen, it’s your turn,” Ms. Hurto chirped, completely clueless about my dilemma.
I turned bright red. I knew that I was turning red, because I could feel the fire creeping up my neck and engulfing my face. I blushed easily and often, then turned almost maroon when someone inevitably asked, “Oh my gosh, why are you turning so red?” It was miserable, I then blushed as a result of the knowledge that I was blushing.
There was roaring in my ears again, I was sweating even more. Before I knew it, the lies were out of my mouth. “I got some clothes and an Atari,” I said hurriedly, in one soft, breathy spurt of words. I was almost a deep maroon by now. I wasn’t accustomed to lying, or speaking in front of my classmates. I just knew everyone could see straight through me. Some of the girls exchanged glances, there was a brief silence, then the girl on my left began to speak. Relief coursed through my body. After a brief jackhammer like pounding, my pulse began to slow, and I could feel the fire leaving my face. My body was like rubber, and I felt like I had just walked a tightrope over a sea of piranhas.
I wondered about what Ms. Hurto and my classmates would have said if they had known the truth. The truth wasn’t so bad to me, but I understood that if everyone knew how much I didn’t receive they would whisper and look at me with pity. Almost anything was better than that, even lying.
I thought of Christmas Eve, when Mama gave my brother and me the gifts she had wrapped carefully. She had given me a lipstick and bubble bath from Avon, and my brother after shave and bubble bath from the same catalog. She had ordered for my father an Avon Collector’s Car filled with his favorite cologne, he would put this on the shelf with the others he had collected over the past few years. She received nothing; there was no money that year, not even for a Christmas tree.
I could hear my parents’ discussions when they thought we weren’t around; my father lamenting the fact that he couldn’t provide properly for his family and my mother reassuring him that he was doing a great job. It’s funny; I don’t recall that there were ever things I desperately wanted for Christmas. I remember that during the good years, we had a tree decorated with bright red and green tinsel and those silver strands of tinsel icicles. There was always a basket with nuts and fruits. Some years there were no gifts under the tree, but that basket was there.
When I pictured the perfect Christmas, the Norman Rockwell drawings came to mind. In all of those drawings, the decorations are beautiful. Time with loved ones, caroling, sledding and eating Christmas dinner are the central focus. There is a lot of love, and with it the hope that love brings. The stockings are shown, but elaborate gifts are never featured as the foundation for joy. That’s how I pictured the perfect Christmas then, and even now. The Christmas season should be beautiful for everyone, no matter the economic situation. The material gifts never have really played a central part in my vision.
I think of Ms. Hurto every year when I return to teaching after Christmas break. She was such a kind person, I know she meant well. I have never asked a student what they received for Christmas. Instead, if the opportunity arises when I am speaking with a student or even a co-worker privately, I ask “how was your break?” and then move on quickly if it seems to be an uncomfortable topic. After all, not all of us can always have an Atari kind of Christmas.