On the last day of school before winter break, I assigned homework to my fourth-graders. I printed their tasks on the whiteboard:
Read every day.
The assignment came with a little speech.
“You’ll be gone for 16 days. We’ve worked hard this year on your reading skills. I don’t want your brain to turn to mush while we’re apart, so please read a little every day. Even if you’re reading junky books, read something.
“Spend time with your family members and let them know you’re happy to be with them.
“I want you to think about everything you have before you receive presents and be thankful. Each of us has everything we need, and a lot of us have a lot of what we want. I hope you are as happy the day before you receive gifts as you are the day after.
“And I hope that you’ll find ways to share your joy with the people around you.”
I’m not sure how much they heard (we were, after all, hours from two weeks of freedom) or how diligently they’ve been working on their assign- ments this week. I may have lost a few with that reading assignment first thing. None of them could have been too surprised by the list, though. It mirrors my everyday teaching.
We’re in the middle of Little House in the Big Woods, the first novel in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. As I read aloud, I stop often to ask questions (“What can you infer …”) and answer questions (“What does that mean?”).
I also pause to emphasize differences between our 21st-century suburban lives and the lives of 19th-century pioneers.
Our food almost always comes from a grocery store or restaurant. Their food came from the fields and woods.
Our clothes almost always come from a store — or online equivalent. Their clothes were almost always handmade.
We are constantly entertained, with media streaming in our homes, on our phones. Their entertainment was Pa playing the fiddle when he wasn’t too tired from working all day.
One of the most obvious differences is Christmas now and Christmas then.
In the novel, Laura receives more gifts than any other child on Christmas morning: red mittens, a peppermint stick and a rag doll. The handmade doll replaces her previous doll, a corncob by the name of Susan.
I stop reading in the middle of the Christmas chapter and let it all sink in. All the cousins received two simple gifts. They need mittens for the harsh winters. A stick of candy is a luxury.
And little Laura? She’s rendered speechless when she receives a doll made of cloth and yarn.
There are days as a teacher and a parent that I wish we could regain that wonder found in basic, simple pleasures. I don’t want my students or my own two children to feel guilty for the luxuries we enjoy. I do want us all to recognize how fortunate we are.
No matter what was under the tree or in stockings Friday, no matter which of our wishes were fulfilled, we’re already rich with the most important gifts. We have clean drinking water. We have access to healthy food. We live in safe communities. Education is available to all.
We’ve got countless reasons to be thankful and joyful, no matter the day of the year.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm.com.