The Christmas story I am posting today is one that was published in The Big Book of Christmas Joy last year. It's about the year that I and many of my classmates learned the joy in giving that surpasses that of receiving gifts. Sometimes, this lesson is not learned until far into adulthood. I was blessed to have acquired this knowledge at so young an age.
The Best Christmas Present Ever
By Nancy Julien Kopp
In 1949 the twenty-one children in my fifth grade class learned one of life’s greatest lessons. Ten year olds usually care more about the importance of receiving gifts than the considering the joy in giving them. But that year, we found out that giving truly is better than receiving, and it was all because of a special teacher.
Lyle Biddinger served on a navy destroyer during World War II, went to college on the GI Bill and landed in a Chicago suburban grade school teaching fifth grade. We were his first class, and he was the first male teacher in our Kindergarten through eighth grade school. Young, handsome, and an outstanding teacher—he was all any ten year old could ask for.
During family dinners, I talked endlessly about what Mr. Bid had told us that day, what he’d shown us, the games he’d taught us. He may as well have been sitting at our table every night, for his presence was evident Monday through Friday. I hurried through breakfast so I could get to school early, and I offered to stay after classl and do whatever little jobs needed to be done. I wasn’t the only one who acted this way about Mr. Biddinger. Oh no--all of us adored him.
We were so proud to be in his class. We preened our feathers like peacocks around the kids in the other fifth grade. He was all ours, and like kids of that age, we let everyone know it. Our teacher made learning fun, and in the 1940’s this was a new approach. At one point, some of the parents went to the principal and complained that Mr. Biddinger spent too much time playing games during classtime. School should not be fun; it was to be hard work. Somehow Mr. Biddinger and the principal placated the disgruntled parents, and life went on as before in the fifth grade.
December arrived, and the Room Mother contacted the other parents. Each family was asked to give a modest amount of money to be used for a Christmas gift for the teacher. It was not an unusual request in our school. Next she called Mr. Biddinger’s wife to find out what might be the perfect gift for him.
It was to be a secret, of course, but we all knew about it, and whispers and notes flew back and forth. Our class Christmas party would be held the last day before the holiday break. We would have a grab bag gift exchange, punch and cookies and candy. We’d play some games, get out of schoolwork and give Mr. Bid his gift. The days trickled by slower than ever before, and our excitement grew steadily. We looked forward to our school Christmas much more than the one we’d each have at home.
Finally, the big day dawned. Our Room Mother arrived bearing the punch and brightly decorated Christmas cookies and hard candies. But where was the big box Mr. Bid’s present was in? We didn’t see it. We wriggled in our desks and fretted. Whispers sailed around the room until Mr. Bid scolded us. “Settle down,” he said, “or the party’s over as of now.” Quiet reigned. The treats and grab bag gifts were passed out. We munched on our sugar cookies and slurped the red punch. The classroom door opened, and a strange woman walked in. Mr. Biddinger’s looked surprised at first; then a big smile crossed his face. We were soon introduced to his wife. The Room Mother disappeared into the hall but was back in seconds holding a good-sized box wrapped in Christmas paper and tied with a wide red ribbon. The chatter in the room ceased immediately, and all eyes were riveted on that box.
The Room Mother cleared her throat, walked to our teacher and said, “Mr. Biddinger, this gift is from your students. They wanted to show their love and appreciation by giving you something special.” As she handed him the box, the room tingled with an air of excitement.
Mr. Bid seemed excited, and that alone thrilled us. He untied the bow and handed the ribbon to his wife. Next came the wrapping, and we all leaned forward. He opened the box and lifted a hunting jacket from the folds of tissue paper. This had been his fondest wish for Christmas, Mrs. Biddinger had told the Room Mother. He loved to hunt on the week-ends whenever possible, but the special hunting gear was beyond a teacher’s salary at that time.
For the first time, the man who taught us so much became mute, totally speechless. He turned the jacket over and over, looked at the special pockets on the inside and outside. He tried again to say something but couldn’t. But the sparkle in his eyes and the smile on his face said all we needed to know. He finally found his voice and told us over and over how much he loved his new jacket. “It’s probably the finest gift I’ve ever received,” he said. He didn’t say why, but we knew. We had no doubt that the reason was that it came from his first class, the twenty-one ten year olds who adored him.
I don’t remember the gifts I received at home that Christmas, but I’ll never forget the gift we gave Mr. Biddinger. It was the best Christmas present ever.