This morning we have eighteen children in class, all new to walking. More expressive with their bodies than their voices. All under three feet tall, most much less: Gabby, Vienna, Advay, Kiara, Gino, Luca, Julianna (these three are triplets), Lela and Talia (blonde twins), Gemma, Tusant, Clara, Natalia, Caleb, Madeline, Olivia, Finnegan, and Laughlin—he’s the youngest, and very chubby in baby and other ways. Teresa and I are the teachers, but I’m also an unshowered substitute, barely cleared to work. We have two volunteers: Angelo and Rosa, the triplets’ parents. Promptly at nine Angelo turns on the radio (we only use the failing boombox’s cd feature, and only for nap time and cleanup) and finds bad Christmas music, frequently and loudly interrupted by commercials; all of this blasts in disharmony with children shrieking and adults yelling to be heard. At 9:15 I turn the radio way down, and bald Angelo (who doesn’t have much of a neck, just many folds) puts on his iPhone’s headphones and starts bopping up and down. Rosa, a mama bear, changes all eighteen diapers by 9:30, though I offered to switch off with her twice. Teresa has a bad sore throat and sets up the party snacks—today is Christmas party day, all over the school—a strange assortment of things donated by parents: limp melons, Oreos, stale goldfish crackers, oranges, cherry tomatoes. Dumped on holiday paper plates, these foods clash together and the little chickies eat them so slowly; one orange slice lasts five minutes. Apple juice spreads quickly over the low tables and floors; the crappy brown school paper towels are useless against it.
At ten we line up to walk down the hall to Santa, as instructed by the school’s director, Peggy, an hour ago. Everyone’s in line, it’s all set, and then another teacher yells down the hall “There’s a holdup, wait fifteen minutes and try again.” We release the kids into the room, where dramas belch out and whining picks up. This is not their routine, not what they’re used to. Olivia is new to school and cries continually, her face is slick with fluids. Kiara takes her boot off once, twice, thirteen times; she’s so pretty, and smiles so much, it’s impossible to be mad at her. We line up again, and again are told to wait, this time until 10:45. Teresa is ten years younger than me but has a daughter (I am the only childless adult in the room, possibly the oldest adult too, at 34) and doesn’t talk much today, her throat is raw. Angelo, who looks a little like the Thing (and sounds like him too) says, “What the hell? It doesn’t take a neural surgeon to know these kids have the least patience—they should see Santa first.” He shakes his head (twice as big as my head) and his wife, sitting with all three of their children in her lap, rolls her eyes. I feel I should add something—these people don’t even know my name, so I say, “In two months of working here, today is by far the most intense.” Fifteen tearful, angry, fierce, naughty minutes later (and that’s just what’s showing on the small, moist faces directly in front of me) we walk down the hall to the front of the school, where Santa is waiting with a plastic bag of presents bought by the children’s teacher (who is out today with her own sick three-year-old). Santa is both gentle and mysterious; I cannot tell how old he actually is. Kind voice, crinkly eyes, gin blossom tamped down with baby powder. The kids, mostly terrified of Santa, sit on a bench ten feet away. They will be called up one at a time to get their gift, a plush pillow made by other children thousands of miles away. Someone gives me a camera and a new job, photographing this event. “Natalia! Merry Christmas, c’mon up here!” calls Santa, but Natalia is scared. She is one of three black kids in the class; Advay is Indian—does he even know who Santa is?; Olivia is Hispanic; the triplets and their parents are second generation Italian, so is Gemma. (In other classes in this school there are other Indian children, Koreans, beautiful combinations of black and white and Latino.) The 18-month-olds, the 20-month-olds, the 2-year-olds lurch up to Santa and take their gifts, or do not—often they are too petrified to move and the presents are deposited in their laps by intermediary adults. I take a photo of every exchange—in two out of eighteen I get the child’s face somewhere near Santa’s. As a photographer I do poorly, and rate myself a B- overall for the morning; I could have been kinder about the radio, could have said something instead of just turning it down. When Angelo and Rosa’s triplets are called, their girl is brash, pushes her brothers aside. Finnegan, a chubby faced blue-eyed curly blonde boy, very Irish, stomps up to Santa, then snatches his toy and turns away in one motion, like a breaching sperm whale.
Santa takes rejection and ingratitude in stride (is he going to the mall after this?) and his jolly laugh is real, despite the painful irony of handing out cheap toys under a big wooden crucifix. (This used to be a Catholic school, now it’s a nonprofit but the nuns still show up once a week and walk around in a haze). Costumed, all of us: most of the teachers, myself included, and Peggy and the secretary, Fran, are wearing red sweaters or blouses and dark pants. We look like a bloated color guard, closing ranks around our tiny royals. Kiara is last up and smiles broadly (she likes adults, a lot) and finally it’s over, our herd shuffles off. Gemma, Olivia, and Advay hang on my jeans and hands as we step slowly back to our room, which used to be the Catholic school’s cafeteria. As soon as we get back, Rosa and Angelo bundle up their crew and rush out, far quieter than their pre-Santa selves. Tanya comes in, dressed as an elf (she went room to room this morning, reading a Christmas book and wearing a pointed hat with fake ears pinned on). She turns off the lights, shuts the blinds, and gets us all to sit down on the rug. “We’ve under lockdown,” she says, looking only at me, then Teresa. “It’s a manhunt,” she mouths, “They’ll tell us when it’s over.” (Later, another teacher tells me a five-year-old’s body was found that afternoon, and cops swept the area, looking for a black pickup truck. Which was made up: the boy’s half-sister murdered him). And so we all sit in confused silence, the kids chewing on their new plush pillows, looking up at us for some idea of what the hell is going on. Kiara has hung on to me pretty much all morning, and now leans against me hard, plays with my prayer beads. I am calm, children look at my face and see no fear—this is not my usual. Fifteen minutes later Peggy (who has continually disrupted our morning) comes in and gives us the all clear. Kiara stands up and lays her head on my chest. Next up: lunch.