Editor's note: This is a modified reprint of a column that first ran Dec. 23, 2001. Numerous readers have contacted the author over the years seeking a copy of this timeless story of a beautiful Christmas gift. The column runs today as our gift to readers.
Sometimes the very best gifts are those that don't cost dollars and come without pretty paper and fancy ribbons. Often it takes a child to remind us that the best gifts come from the heart.
More than a decade ago, when I was working as a fifth-grade teacher in a Pasco County school, I had a student named Max. In my class of more than two dozen students, he stood out, large for his age, his physical size hinting that maybe he'd been held back more than once. His quickly growing preteen frame was stretching the already too-small and too-worn shirt he wore day after day. Despite the shabby clothes and often dirty hands and face, something said this kid was special.
His grades weren't special. He could barely read. Writing and math weren't much better, but he attended school regularly. I guessed one reason might have been the free meals. Another was possibly the security of the building. I'd heard his family was living in an old rundown station wagon on a nearby side street. The picture was not a promising one for Max, yet his eyes were filled with kindness. He was a calm and polite child.
It was the eve of the last day of school before Christmas vacation. I was in the midst of a troubling divorce, and with two young children, my budget was already quite strained. But I wanted Max to have something new for Christmas, thinking there would probably be little if anything else for him. Clearly his outgrown and overused clothing had already seen better days.
At a discount store I found a T-shirt with Dukes of Hazzard logo at a price even I could afford. I chose for Max a bright blue one, large enough to fit him for a while. I carefully wrapped the shirt and next morning took it to the principal's office.
At that time, it was customary before Christmas for teachers to bring in any toys and games that were in good condition but that our families no longer used. They were recycled into gifts for needy children in our school. The gifts were predestined according to lists prepared in advance. At a given time, Santa would make an announcement over the intercom regarding a drawing for gifts. All presents were labeled "From Santa."
It was hard to hide my excitement when Max's name was called. A few moments later, he proudly marched back into our classroom, wearing the new blue shirt over his old one. His beaming face lit up the room. I thought there could be no greater joy than what I felt at that moment, seeing Max in that shirt.
I was wrong.
A short time later, my students were eager for me to open the gifts they had piled on my desk. I invited them to join me, and as we sat together I unwrapped each one. There was the usual stationery, jewelry and Christmas ornaments. I hugged and thanked each child until the last gift had been opened.
Then Max, who sat close by, asked, "Can you open mine?"
I was puzzled as there were no more packages.
Max pointed to a neatly folded sheet of paper lying where the packages had been. Clearly, it had been placed there early in the day. I took it, unfolded it and read. I embraced Max tightly. His eyes sparkled with the joy of giving as mine flowed freely with tears.
The note simply said: "I LOVE YOU. This is all I could get, so merry chrismas." It was signed "Max." Taped to the note was a nickel.
Though I didn't know it at the time, it was the last day I would see Max. During the vacation, his family in the battered car moved on.
Years have passed since that day, but when this time of giving arrives each year, I take out the note, complete with the nickel still taped to it. I think about Max and I remember the lesson he taught with his gift.