Cassandra’s Christmas

It was the last day before Christmas Break at Pacific High School in Garibaldi. Cassandra looked out the second floor window of her classroom, over the entire village of 3500, and down to the port. All the crabbing boats were gone. The state finally gave them the green light and thus launched the crustacean gold rush, and with it, the welcome absence of Cassandra’s semi-literate, semi-drunken boyfriend of the last several months. How a smart and vivacious Yearbook, Journalism and Photography teacher had ended up with a loser like him was inexplicable, even to herself. Such pairings often occur on the Oregon Coast, especially in the rainy winter in the fishing villages. She’d already made a New Year’s Resolution to dump him.

The sky was overcast and the temperature flirted with freezing. Snow was in the forecast and all the students knew it. So did the teachers. They all prayed for snow and an early release to get on with a vacation (reprieve) from the rote and dreary experience known as an American high school education. It was an education that amounted to nothing more than preparation to become a more rabid consumer of useless crap, a more expert worker at destroying the planet with a useless job, a more disconnected useless human being from humanity, and a more practiced screen time-zombie because most of the teachers at Pacific High School didn’t really teach. They supervised students in Personalized Learning Explorations (PLEs), the new revolutionary online (i.e. teacher proof) curriculum the school district had spent millions on, thereby enriching the Synergy Corporation (subsidiary of Amazon or Google or Standard Oil) in certitude that the curriculum written by non-teachers would raise test scores and graduation rates. Of course it would do nothing to enlarge the hearts or minds of students. Nobody gave a shit about that.

But Cassandra taught, taught her ass off, and loved her gig at Pacific High with its underdog students. She loved that the school’s mascot was a sea otter, loved seeing the bay and hearing the grunts of the sea lions. And she really loved the gig because she didn’t have to use PLEs in her teaching because she taught only electives, and was in fact, the only teacher of electives in the entire school! She was also the varsity volleyball coach!

Goddammit, thought Cassandra, snow you mother—

It was the beginning of second period Journalism, a 90-minute block of 27 students that produced the school newspaper that every person in Garibaldi read because it was the only newspaper in town.

Cassandra, wearing a red Christmas sweater emblazoned with demonic-looking angels, was running the class through her Holiday Fever Prompts, an annual lesson she taught the last day before break. It had always been a big hit with students and she invited them to share one of their responses aloud by the end of the period to receive a candy cane and 50 extra credit points. Extra credit! Cassandra always wrote with the students and always shared. The prompts were:

  1. Baaaaaah humbug! Christmas season sucks! No, I love it!
  2. Santa Claus exists.
  3. What is the spiritual significance to the holiday season for me?
  4. Elves are cruelly exploited and physically deformed workers who need to revolt against Santa’s capitalist tyranny and own the multinational gift production/distribution business themselves.
  5. I have been very good/bad boy or girl this year and deserve/do not deserve presents. Be honest! Maybe you really deserve coal in your stocking.
  6. What’s one simple action I can take this holiday season to better my minuscule corner of the world?
  7. What’s the perfect metaphor to illustrate the American holiday season?
  8. On the 13th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

As Andy Williams’ Christmas album crooned on the turntable, students cranked out sentences on the pages of their journal, in longhand, something Cassandra demanded. The so-called Cloud storing the aspirations and ideas of these teenagers will have evaporated long before the pages of a paper journal disintegrate.

Cassandra perused the prompts. Which one? She usually steered toward comedy in her responses, but wasn’t feeling it this season. In fact, she had been feeling rather blue of late. Sure, the loser boyfriend, and sure, she’d probably be alone at Christmas, but something much, much larger nagged at Cassandra.

The job. Was it worth it anymore? She’d tallied seven years at Pacific High, her first teaching assignment, and every year the job seemed to deteriorate in value relative to the mental, physical and spiritual health of her students. Was she complicit in this deterioration? Was she really doing a damn thing worth doing? Was she a cog? Was she part of The Combine that threshed young people in the fields, readying them for baling and feeding to the livestock of American living?

Cassandra was about to write on # 6 when she heard something outside. She checked the window and saw a large flatbed truck backing up into the parking lot of a church’s food bank. It was loaded with boxes and boxes of non-perishable goods. An elderly man got out of the truck. Two elderly women emerged from the food bank. Cassandra stared at the sky. It was darkening, getting ready to do something.

What’s one simple action I can take this holiday season to better my minuscule corner of the world?

“Class,” Cassandra announced. “Everyone read #6 and then join me at the window.”

Within seconds, all 27 students stood at the window with their teacher.

“Class,” said Cassandra, “We aren’t going to write on any of the prompts today. We’re going to live number six. Right now. This period, together.”

A murmur of excitement gurgled up in the teenagers. They always loved when Cassandra riffed like this because they didn’t know what the hell was going to happen next, precisely the opposite of almost every other period, every day, every week, every month, at school.

“What can we do as one class, as one giant individual to better our minuscule Garibaldi?”

Cassandra knew what she wanted them to do, but she held back, waiting, waiting, waiting…until some boy said, “Why don’t we go help with unloading the boxes at the food bank.” He pointed down to the church as he said this.

“Right on!” said a girl, then another girl.

“Let’s roll sea otters!” shouted Cassandra. “Get your coats!”

Bedlam erupted. A mad scramble ensued and everyone was flying down the stairs, out the back door, and walking briskly toward the food bank. Cassandra found herself running and screaming, “Run you devils! Run!”

They ran. Cassandra looked up and thought she saw something floating down from the sky. A single white something. The students were too giddy to notice.

Goddammit, thought Cassandra, snow you mother—

Technically, since the class had left campus, this impromptu field trip required a battery of permission forms, a safety plan, a first Aid kit, and a pouch containing all the various medications that students needed in emergencies if they went on a field trip, medications generally prescribed to profit pharmaceutical conglomerates, and keep students dulled to the savage inequalities and emotionally bankrupt nature of American life.

The principal had busted Cassandra on this issue before when she took the photography class outside to document the incoming crab boats. You couldn’t plan for that arrival! So they bolted to the docks, took incredible photographs and videos, and staged a show at gallery. Most of the fishermen came, some even sober.

Screw the forms, thought Cassandra. Fire me! We’re moving! She was doing it almost more for herself than her students.

Fifteen minutes later the class had unloaded the boxes from the truck and put the stock out on the shelves as they inhaled three dozen day-old doughnuts. The elderly women called the students their “precious Christmas elves.”

Right before departing, Cassandra gathered the students together in a far corner of the room and said, “Start asking questions of this place right now.” It was a common brainstorming exercise she employed with her journalism students and it always produced something wholly unexpected and wondrous.

The questions came as if shot out of a cannon:

Why is this place so crowded?

Why is there no staff to help out the old ladies?

Who are these hungry people?

Why are people so hungry?

What kind of food do they need the most?

Then Cassandra asked her students:

Why haven’t we been here before?

How many of you know someone who uses this pantry?

How many of you are in families that use food stamps?

How many of you are on free or reduced lunch?

How many of you are too embarrassed to admit it or don’t even use it?

How many of you are hungry during the day or night?

Hungry right now?

A silence hung over the group. Cassandra had ripped out the questions so fast that no had to time answer.

But they were thinking about them.

“Okay,” said Cassandra, “I want everyone to get their phones out, and take a photograph of the food bank or a product or staff member or a customer, write a brief statement about what this place needs for Christmas donations and post it to social media. You have five minutes.”

The class looked ready to explode when Cassandra added, “Get permission from the people you photograph and ask if you can use their names.”

“Cassandra,” said a student, the editor of the newspaper, “Is this going to be graded?”

Damn the grades! thought Cassandra.

“Sure,” she said, lying. “Show me your post as we head to the next stop and I’ll give you 25 points.”

Five minutes later, Cassandra, standing outside the food bank, yelled, “We’re rolling Garibaldi, we’re rolling you sea otters!”

Cassandra didn’t know where they were rolling. She was teaching on the fly, improvising, intuiting, but it wasn’t disorganized. It was life ready to unfold.

In the distance, Cassandra heard what sounded like live rock and roll being played outdoors. What? In Garibaldi? She followed the sound with her class spread out across the street behind her, in a sort of a battle formation.

The students heard the rock and roll and caught Cassandra’s drift. Soon, they were all jogging. Someone broke into “Deck the Halls,” and everyone joined in.

Three blocks later, the class, winded, stood in front of Garibaldi’s only Christmas tree lot, a cherished tradition run by the same family for 75 years. The lot was lit up, serving hot chocolate, and three old brown labs were decked out out as reindeer, patrolling the area, making everyone smile.

Behind the tree lot was an abandoned parking lot strewn with derelict cars and boats. A lone scrawny shore pine had somehow rooted itself in the broken concrete and was the only living thing around. This space had been a city eyesore for years, and recently became home to a dozen or so homeless people in a makeshift tent/RV encampment. The police had no idea what to do about it and several neighbors had called in complaints about litter, noise and the general presence of homeless people. Out of sight, out of mind is the general thinking on the issue in America.

But it wasn’t the tree lot or the homeless camp that arrested the students’ attention. It was three white dreadlocked young men playing and singing rock and roll Christmas songs on a cello, snare drum, and acoustic guitar. The trio was rocking the holy hell out of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” and a small crowd of people, including a few from the homeless camp, had gathered to listen and sing along.

Cassandra whipped out her wallet and dropped a $5 in the trio’s pot. A couple students dropped in some change. The song ended and Cassandra asked the band if they took requests. She had a $20 ready if they could play her favorite Christmas song, “Father Christmas” by the Kinks.

The band knew the song and fired into it. Within seconds, they were belting out the chorus with Cassandra joining in:

Father Christmas, give us some money
We’ll beat you up if you make us annoyed
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys

“Dance you devils!” Cassandra roared to her students, as she danced.

Her students danced. She then gazed over to the parking lot and homeless camp. The shore pine caught her eye. She bellowed, “We’re rolling Garibaldi! Let’s go sea otters!”

A minute later, Cassandra and her students stood in front of the shore pine in the homeless camp.

“I want this tree decorated STAT!” she said.

“With what?” said one of the teenagers.

“With whatever you have or whatever you find. Now decorate you crafting devils!”

Half the students wore some kind Christmas decoration on their person, a Santa hat, scarves, bells, ribbons, boas of garland, ornament and candy cane earrings. Off it all came and students shouted out a strategy for decoration.

A man emerged from a tent. Then a few more men, two women, and a couple of dogs.

“What’s going on?” said one of the men.

“We want to decorate your tree,” said Cassandra. “I’m a teacher from the high school, Cassandra, and these are my students. You want to help us?”

Nobody said anything.

Cassandra looked up to inspect the sky. Goddammit, let it snow you mother—

“Sure, that would be great,” said a woman.

“Everyone introduce themselves,” said Cassandra.

They did. They shook hand and slapped backs and went to work on the tree. The homeless men and women and students conversed as they decorated. Simple conversations. Opinions about placement of certain decorations. A few questions from both sides. Observation. Reflection. Listen. Digest. Consider. Reconsider. Face to face. It was all sort of journalism without the formality of journalism, but the outcome was the same: information about something you didn’t know before. You learned something new because you were curious—or made to be curious. You probably had your conventional wisdom blown to smithereens.

As the decorating was underway, Cassandra pulled out her phone and punched up the pizza joint on an app. She ordered three large cheese and three pepperoni pizzas, wings, sodas, and directed delivery to the homeless camp behind the tree lot. She included a hefty tip.

“Cassandra,” said one of the students, “Take a look at the tree.”

She wheeled around and beheld the funkiest Christmas tree in Oregon. The empty beer cans were a special gritty touch, as was the fishing line. At the top of the tree rested a red trucker hat. Students were taking photographs of it, as were a couple of the homeless, and sending it out to the digital realm. It might do a little good there. It was worth a try.

Cassandra addressed a group of the homeless. More had emerged from the tents and RVs. Her students watched. “I just ordered pizzas for you. They’re going to be delivered in 15 minutes. We can’t stay, though. Gotta roll. Merry Christmas from Pacific High School.”

It felt like the best “Merry Christmas” Cassandra had ever said to anyone.

When’s the last time you said “Merry Christmas” and meant it? When you do, it feels awesome.

“Thank you,” said one of the men.

“Let’s roll sea otters!” barked Cassandra.

And away they dashed.

Last stop: the animal shelter and the adjacent thrift store that supported the shelter. At some point in the field trip, Casssandra knew the class would end up there but she fretted the shelter and thrift store might be closed at this hour due to staffing and budget issues. If they were open, then what? Cassandra didn’t have a clue and she realized that time was running out on the period. Can’t be tardy back to school when you’re not even supposed to be missing!

Hark the herald angels sing! Both were open. Cassandra told the class to wait outside while she raced inside the shelter to confer with its management. She had an idea to pitch.

A minute later she had the students in a tight circle, much like a football huddle.

Cassandra called out the play: “Okay, here’s the plan. We’re going into the shelter and help get these animals adopted. It’s called Operation Pet Rescue. Teams of two. Half of you will work with dogs, half with cats. It doesn’t matter which one. Don’t complain. Use some of the Christmas decorations and dress up the animals. Take some great shots, closeups, find out their names, write an appeal to be adopted in the first person. Become the pet! Blast this out over social media. No typos! No extra credit for this. It’s a full hundred point test. If the animal gets adopted before Christmas, A. If it doesn’t, F, a big fat F. Now get your hands in here.”

She reached out her right hand into the circle. All the students did the same. They all came together as one hand. They were powerful. They were an army.

“On three,” Cassandra yelled, “Let’s go sea otters!”

She counted down and the cheer went up. It resounded through town. It spooked the sea lions. The students broke the huddle and sprinted into the shelter. The mission was on.

Fifteen minutes later, every team had completed the assignment and all the students were now standing inside the thrift store. Two elderly men and one elderly woman were on duty at the counter, wearing hideous Christmas sweaters, watching Cassandra. She hadn’t cleared anything with them. They weren’t used to 30 teenagers standing in front of them with Christmas music playing.

“Class,” she said. “You have exactly seven minutes to buy anything you want as long as the total doesn’t exceed three dollars. My treat, your Christmas gift for a job well done today. All Christmas cards don’t count against the total. Get your mom a card!”

A gentle chaos erupted as the students fanned out into the thrift store to shop. Cassandra shopped, too, and was delighted to discover a yellow macrame top from circa 1975. She’s been collecting these vintage garments for years, but never actually worn one anywhere except around her house. She wondered what teaching in macrame might feel like it. It was high time she found out!

A couple of the girls came up to Cassandra and asked for her opinion on some clothes they were considering buying. She gave it. She offered some recommendations of classic novels to a few bookworms perusing the musty shelves. They took them. Cassandra noticed a boy trying on a wool overcoat that was three sizes too big for him.

“You gonna wear that?” she said.

“No. I thought someone at the camp could use it. It’s more than three dollars though. But I’ll cover the difference.”

Cassandra thought she might start crying. But she kept it together,

The students lined up and placed their items on the counter. They cleaned out the Christmas cards and animal figurines. Cassandra was last and paid the bill. They exited the thrift store with all their loot.

It started snowing. Hell yes mother—

The students started skipping, doing jigs and jumps, karate kicks. “Dance you snow devils!” shouted Cassandra. “Dance!”

They danced down the street. They blocked traffic and a few horns honked, but they weren’t honking in anger.

As they approached the campus, the tardy bell rang. They were late! That would earn Cassandra the top spot on the principal’s Christmas Shit List and she’d have to chaperone all the dances for the rest of the year!

There he was, on the front steps, waiting, pissed off, arms crossed, snowflakes collecting on his tan windbreaker.

Cassandra laughed. “We’re busted!”

The students clapped and cheered.

And then the snow really began to fall.