The blonde shoved a small wrapped package into my hands, her words tripping over each other like rocks rolling down a hill. The shy girl watched intently as I took the gift, and offered her own words, which got lost in the other's avalanche. "Secret Santa" emerged a few times, but I heard little else beyond, "Open it now!"
There was a note taped to the outside of the gift, with "Shucka" (no Mrs. in sight) written in ink on top of the folds. Both girls were crowded so close to me that I had to unfold the paper with elbows tucked to my sides. The paper itself was from a notepad with a hole at the top for a pencil to rest with the initial F at the top. Neither girl has an F as an initial for either first or last names.
p.s. secret santa will be the one to hold you at the end of the day to the buses.
The package was wrapped so tightly I knew it was a heart before the paper came off - with the girls still so close to me I felt gift-wrapped myself. And what a heart it was. Large, poufy, sparkly, only slightly grimy around the edges. The Goodwill tag still attached. (I didn't see that word as part of the gift until much later.)
The girls were beside themselves with a weird combination of glee and tenderness. "We don't know who your Secret Santa is. Someone put the package in our hands and told us to give it to you. The heart is Alex."
I played my part, although I was having a hard time holding back tears. "I guess I'll have to wait until after school to find out. I wonder who would have done such a wonderful thing for me."
With the heart placed prominently on my desk I pushed us all into the day. During the morning I felt both girls watching me whenever I would reread the note, or shift the heart out of the way. For a bit I wondered which was my Secret Santa, but then forgot about the whole thing as I gave myself over to the thousands of decisions and conversations that are the hallmark of every teacher's day.
At the end of the day, after giving closing directions and while overseeing the usual pandemonium of twenty-four kids on the verge of freedom, I felt a nudge at my left arm, which I lifted to encircle the unseen child. I looked down into huge brown eyes beaming up from a porcelain face framed by waves of almost-black hair.
I smiled back down at her, and for long moments there were no words at all. Just knowing. And love. And the ghost of a kitty only two weeks gone.
She stood under my wing for the rest of the day - as I guided the kids to the bell, and all the way to the buses.
Eventually there were words: "I saw the heart and I thought of Alex, so it's him to remind you he's still with you so you won't be sad."
"This is the best gift a student has ever given me, and now I'll remember both you and Alex whenever I see the heart."
At the doorway to her bus, we hugged, I kissed the top of her head in benediction, told her I loved her and breathed the purity of her love in and back out into a world greatly in need.
Wishing for all of you at least one gift of this magnitude this holiday season. Your presence in my life, your comments of encouragement and love, your stories - these are all gifts I treasure in the same way I'll always cherish that Goodwill heart.