No Gift Too Small

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Richard Swerdlow (Richard Swerdlow)

The ads say Christmas is about buying cars or diamonds. But in Richard Swerdlow’s long-ago Christmas, it was about something much, much better.

For teachers, some years are rougher than others. And that group of kids, about 25 years ago, was rough. To a new teacher, it seemed like every problem kid in school was in my 3rd grade class; kids who were bullies, kids who back-talked, kids who were always absent. By December, I was exhausted, looking forward to Christmas vacation.

And then there were the different types of problem kids; the sad kids. Jimmy was one of those. I didn't know much about him, only that he'd been removed from his parents by child protective services and placed in a group home. He rarely spoke and never broke a rule. With such a rowdy group, I barely noticed him.

But Christmas was coming, and leading my line of 8-year-olds from recess, I asked Jimmy about the holiday in the group home. Just another day, he told me. But, he said, he was hoping maybe he would get a basketball. He had always wanted a basketball of his own.

And that evening, in a toy store, gift shopping for nieces and nephews, I unexpectedly came across a display of basketballs. I had a long list of gifts to buy, and, as a new teacher, not much money to buy them with. But, still, staring at those basketballs, Jimmy came to mind. I sighed and put one in my cart.


The day before vacation, I gave the Jimmy the package. "Open it on Christmas," I told him.

Soon Christmas was over, and I thought of it no more. And before long, it was summer, then a new year of third graders.

A few months ago, I was having lunch in a coffee shop. A couple tables away, a man was sitting with a pretty woman and a small boy. After they finished, he came over and offered a hand to shake. "You're Mr. Swerdlow," he said. "You were my 3rd grade teacher."

"I've been a teacher 26 years," I said "Tell me your name..?"

"I'm Jimmy," he said. "You gave me a Christmas present. I never forgot it."

He introduced me to his wife. "And this is my son," he smiled. "He loves basketball."

I finished my lunch, deep in thought, remembering sad, silent Jimmy and his simple Christmas wish all those years ago, and how a broke beginning teacher had impulsively bought it for him. And I thought of something I once heard: No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

So here's my simple Christmas wish for the world: If you have an unexpected generous impulse, however small, act on it this holiday season.

I promise you, it won't be wasted.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.