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A Christmas To Remember

© 2017 Felix_P

The days were becoming more tiring as the years wore on. Seven more months to go before freedom, called retirement. It couldn't come fast enough and it wasn't about the classroom and the kids; it was about the mindless changes occurring in the education system, many of which were made by young administrators who hadn't a clue how to teach.

My grade 4 class was one of the best I'd had in my 30 years of teaching and all 22 of them were pleasant kids and were eager to learn. I was fortunate to have such a good class in my last year, because the school I taught in was in a very poor neighbourhood, with many needy families, in Toronto, Ontario in Canada. But, as was usually the case, there was one student who stood out from the others and not because of his academic prowess.

"Mr. Johnson, how do you spell testicles?" Tyler asked, in a very loud voice during a work period in class when they were doing some creative writing.

There were many snickers and chuckles, mostly from the girls and I had learned that it was necessary to give my undivided attention to him before things escalated. It turned out that his story involved an octopus called Arnold.

"The word you want is 'tentacles', Tyler," I said, in a quiet voice as I bent down beside his desk to move the conversation into a more discreet mode.

"Oh. Well, what are testicles?" he asked.

This sort of discussion is one I was able to avoid when my two daughters were growing up and I had to pause and figure out what an appropriate answer would be for a 9-year-old boy.

"Those are part of a male's anatomy, Tyler," I answered.

By now, Jin, the Chinese girl in the desk in front of him, was trying to keep from bursting out laughing. Tyler was a very expressive boy and his facial expressions were quite transparent and it was obvious he had no idea what I was talking about. I was finally able to get my point across as to what anatomy I was talking about, which required a follow-up comment from him.

"Neal said those were balls," he said, with a high degree of self-assurance.

By now Jin couldn't contain herself and the rest of the class had stopped working and were focussed on what was going on.

"So, tentacle is spelled t e n t a c l e and if there's more than one, which I think is the case with an octopus, you put an 's' on the end," I said, as I pointed to his paper. Thankfully that was the end of the discussion and he wrote the word down.

Tyler was not from a very stable home, as his father had served time in jail for domestic assault, but was back in the home. His mother tried her best, but since she was a nurse's assistant at one of the major hospitals, she frequently worked night shifts. The father had a job in the maintenance department of one of the smaller malls in the suburbs and he was the care giver at home many times during the month. He was not the nicest person and I had suspected that he verbally assaulted Tyler from time-to-time, however, there was never enough evidence for me to have to report to my principal.

Although he loved his mother, she was very neglectful and I strongly suspected it was because of the medication she was on. Tyler was a difficult birth and this compromised his mother's health, which had left her with permanent side effects.

The father presented a different problem and he made things clear that having a child was not his idea. From the one and only parent/teacher interview that they showed up for, he blamed Tyler for a lot of bad things that happen in his life, such as restrictions on his drinking time with his buddies after work and his wife's health.

Despite the problems at home, Tyler was a very cheerful and animated kid. There was never any doubt as to what was on his mind, as he never stored much information in his memory banks. He preferred to get things out in the open.

"Well, what new Tyler joke did you hear today, Mike?" my wife, Louise, asked as I came into the kitchen after work.

This was the usual discussion point after our nightly greeting during the week.

"That talk I was able to avoid having with our two daughters became a reality today. Tyler was confusing testicles with tentacles in his story he was writing about Arnold the octopus," I said, with a chuckle.

"What are we going to do next year when you've retired and there's no Tyler around for entertainment?" she said, with a smile.

Over the years, as with any teacher, there were favourite students that we remembered and enjoyed having in our lives, but for some reason Tyler was more special to me than most of them. I don't know why and it wasn't because I pitied him for his struggles at home, but there was something about him that made me very fond of him.

The next day I was doing playground duty and I knew that Tyler was going to come and talk to me with something that was of utmost importance. There were many clues during the morning class and my best guess was that it was a new joke that he had heard.

"Hi Mr. Johnson. I heard this math joke. Do you want to hear it?"

There was about a two second pause and based on past events, my response wasn't really necessary.

"What comes after 69?" he said.

Since Tyler was not the best math student, I was encouraged and said, "70."

He chuckled and then stopped and looked at me with a big smile.

"Tyler, what's the punch line?" I asked, since there was nothing forthcoming.

"Oh, yeah. Mouthwash," he replied, which started another round of chuckling.

Since I wasn't laughing, he knew something was wrong.

"Who told you this joke?"

"John told it to his friends last night when they were watching the football game. Everyone laughed," he said, with a concerned look on his face. "Isn't it funny?"

Even though John was his biological father, Tyler didn't call him dad and referred to him by his first name.

"Tyler, that was an adult joke and I'm not going to explain it to you."

I told him that he shouldn't tell it to any of the other students and he should also not tell a joke he didn't understand.

After my playground duty, someone had taken my class in the afternoon and I manned the office. One of my other duties at the school, was to be the acting principal when the regular principal was out of the school for various reasons. Our school was not large enough to have a vice principal, so this was a position that filled certain administrative gaps. This was not something I had actively applied for, but my principal asked me to take the position and I agreed. Luanne and I had worked together for a few years and we made a good team and I was happy to help her out. It came with a small financial incentive, which I donated to the breakfast program we ran at the school.

At the end of the day I finished up some paperwork and I was closing up the office for the evening. All the teaching staff was gone and the only one in the building besides me was the caretaker. When I got out to my car I noticed that Tyler was sitting on the edge of the playground with his backpack beside him. I went over to him and it was quite evident that he was stressed for some reason.

"My mom was supposed to be home but the door's locked and nobody is there," he said.

I could see that he was close to tears and I tried to calm him down.

"Do you know your mother or father's cell phone number?" I asked.

He didn't so I took him back into the school to find what numbers we had on file. Unfortunately, we only had the home phone which I called, but got no response so I left a message. I decided to take him over to his house, which was a block from the school to see if someone was there but not conscious, or if they had arrived yet. I wasn't hopeful that this would be a positive result, because there also hadn't been any calls come into the office from the parents looking for him.

It was getting dark now, since it was late November and when we arrived at the house there were no lights on. I rang the doorbell and knocked but there was no response. There was only one more thing that I could possibly think of to do, which I was hoping to avoid.

"Hop into the car. I'm going to take you to my house," I said.

That picked up his spirits a bit and he became a little more like the Tyler I knew on the ride home.

"Hi Mrs. Johnson. I'm Tyler," he said with a big smile as we arrived at our house.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Tyler," Louise said, as she made eye contact with me with a puzzled look on her face.

We got him settled in front of the TV with one of his favourite programs, which gave us a chance to talk. I explained what had happened and told her that I needed to get in touch with Luanne.

"I'm very uncomfortable with this arrangement, but this was the only solution given the circumstances," I told her.

"We've got enough for dinner for the three of us," she said. She was very understanding, as I knew she would be.

I got a hold of Luanne and she was going to call Children's aid to report the incident. There was apparently some past involvement with the family and by law this sort of thing had to be reported. She said to keep her apprised of what was happening and she would do the same.

When I went back into the family room, Louise was talking to him about what he wanted to eat and he said that he liked potato chips with beans on toast.

"Oh," Louise said, surprised at his culinary request. Apparently, this was a typical meal at his house.

When she got over her shock, she said, "How about spaghetti and meat balls and some Caesar salad?"

This was an alteration from the planned menu, but she thought that would be a safe choice for a hungry 9-year-old boy. Judging from his big smile, this was fine dining to him. Even though I would always come home with a Tyler story or joke most nights, this face-to-face contact was providing a lot of enjoyment for Louise.

Around 8 o'clock, he started to yawn and was looking rather sleepy. We still hadn't heard from his parents, so we got the spare room ready for him and put him to bed.

"Those parents should be shot," she said after we got him settled.

"I'd like to think that there are some extenuating circumstances, but I suspect that it's a matter of neglect," I said, as I sighed.

About 10:30 the phone rang and it was the father. It was obvious that he was drunk and I told him that I would take Tyler to school tomorrow and that they would be called to come in and explain what happened. Apparently, the mother was called into work early and according to him she didn't call him to cover. I rather doubted that, but this was not the time to argue with him. He wasn't too pleased, especially when I told him that the principal was contacting Children's aid.

The next morning, we were having breakfast and before we were finished, my youngest daughter, Emma, arrived to pick up some mail of hers that was still coming to our house. Tyler promptly introduced himself to her before we could do the honours.

"I'm Tyler. I'm in Mr. Johnson's class at school," he said.

"Oh, I remember hearing about you," she said, as she gave him a big smile and then looked at Louise and I with a very puzzled look.

I explained in fairly simple terms why he was here and she sat down and spent a few minutes with him. He of course had to tell her one of his 'special' jokes that I had heard a few times.

"What do you call cheese that's not yours?" he said, as he chuckled.

"I don't know, but I'm sure you're going to tell me," Emma said, with a big smile.

"Nacho cheese," he replied, followed by his laugh, which was reserved for particularly good jokes.

We all chuckled, which gave rise to another joke. This one was more involved, so he had to give her some instructions.

"I say 'knock knock' and then you say 'who's there'," he said.

"I think I know how this goes, Tyler," she said, with a smile.

She complied and then he continued with "Cows go."

"Cows go who?" Emma replied.

This was one of his favourite jokes and he had to pause while he laughed.

"Am I going to find out about those cows?" she asked.

Finally, he stopped and said, "No, cows go moo."

"Well I'm sure you keep things interesting in my father's class," Emma said, as she ruffled his hair before she left, which made Tyler smile.

I could see that Emma was taken with him as much as Louise and I were.

When we got to school, Luanne came into my room before the day started and asked that I come to the office to fill out a report and she sent someone in to take my class.

"When the Children's Aid worker and the parents arrive, I'll call for you again to come down for the meeting," she said, as I left to go back to my class.

The meeting was not a pleasant experience for any of us and the parents were given another chance to clean up their act. The worker made it clear than any more problems of this magnitude would result in Tyler being removed from the home and put into foster care.

The next day it was clear that the father had taken out his anger on Tyler, as he was not himself. I didn't want to make things worse and I didn't quiz him on what had transpired that night at home. I gave him some extra attention and over the next few days he had rebounded.

However, things took a turn for the worse after the weekend. When I arrived at the school Monday morning, Luanne came to my room and told me that Tyler's mother had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack and that she was in pretty bad condition. Tyler and the father were at the hospital.

"Oh my, that's not going to make a very Merry Christmas," I said.

"I really don't know her status, but it was the neighbour who phoned and told us. The father had asked her to make the contact," she said.

After a couple of days, Tyler came back to school, but he was very reserved. We were down to one joke a day, which was not his usual output. He was also in denial about how serious the situation was.

"My mother is going to come home this weekend. She's almost better," he said, with a very hopeful tone in his voice.

From the reports we had been given, this was highly unlikely.

That weekend we had a family get together with our girls. Our oldest, Sylvia and her husband, George came with their three-year-old daughter, Taylor, as well as Emma and her husband Larry. Both girls were in their early 30s and lived in Toronto. Emma and her husband had been trying to have a family and had even tried IVF (in-vitro fertilization) which had been unsuccessful. We didn't pry as to what their plans were, but we were afraid that they had given up trying and were resigned to being childless. The real indicator was the fact that they were going through the process to become foster parents.

It didn't take long for both girls to realize that Tyler's situation was having an effect on me.

"There have been great advances in heart treatment these days, dad. She's in one of the best cardiac facilities in Ontario," Emma said.

Emma was a nurse at one of the other hospitals in the city and so she was well informed about this sort of thing. However, given what I had related to her about the mother's condition, her statement wasn't delivered in a very convincing manner.

"I'm sure things will work out for Tyler and his family," Sylvia added, trying to cheer me up.

"You have to be like Tyler, Dad and keep a positive attitude," Emma said.

When I got into school on Monday, my worst fears came true.

"Mike, I have some bad news," Luanne said, as she came into my room before school started. "Tyler's mother passed away last night."

This was not the sort of event a family needed to have a month from Christmas and in Tyler's situation, I had great concern as to how the father would react given his poor attitude and child-rearing skills. Tyler came back to school a few days after the funeral and, as expected, he was very quiet and withdrawn. All the kids in the class tried to cheer him up and I made a point of giving him extra attention when I could. This was also taking a toll on me, as I felt helpless at my inability to make things better for him.

We were having the girls and their families over on the weekend for Sunday dinner and everyone was concerned that I was taking this too seriously.

"They will have to work things out for themselves, Mike and you are helping Tyler," Louise said.

"There are many services in the community and provided by the school board, that the father can tap into," Emma said.

"You're not a social worker, dad. You're doing as much as any teacher would do, given the circumstances," Sylvia added.

I knew everyone was right, but it didn't make me feel any better. Things also got worse the next day at school.

"What's the matter, Tyler," I said, as he came into the classroom holding his right arm in a peculiar manner.

I put my arm around him and he winced and I knew instantly what had happened. I called the office and asked Luanne to send somebody to watch the class while Tyler and I came down.

"Let me lift your shirt up to see your back," I said, after we had closed the door to the outer office.

He was very reluctant to show us and we could see on his face that he was in pain. Finally, he complied and the bruises on his back were not a pretty sight. We also suspected that his right arm, was badly bruised or possibly broken, as well.

"I have some phone calls to make, Tyler, so Mr. Johnson will take you into the other room here and stay with you," Luanne said.

I got some cloth and made a sling for the arm and I got him comfortable in a chair.

"It wasn't John's fault. I was just clumsy," he said.

"Then, why didn't your father take you to the doctor, Tyler?" I replied.

He didn't have an answer and stopped making eye contact with me. This body language and unsolicited information was very revealing and it was obvious he knew what the consequences would be and was trying to cover up for his father. I also knew what one of the calls that Luanne was making would be and before we got him off to the hospital, the Children's Aid social worker would have to interview him and see the damage.

"The ambulance is here," Luanne's administrative assistant said, as the social worker was wrapping up her interview.

Tyler was cooperative, but he wasn't pleased with what was happening, but he didn't have any choice.

"You need to have medical attention and I'll meet you at the hospital," the social worker told him in a reassuring tone.

When Tyler came back to school a few days later, he had been placed in a temporary foster home and John had been charged and was in jail. He was angry that his mother died, that he wasn't in his own home and that Luanne and I had called Children's Aid, which put his father in jail. Everyone was very patient with him, including his friends in the class. However, things were not getting better over the course of the week and I had a blow up with him, where he used very disrespectful language with me. I kept him in at recess and finally he cooled down.

I sat down in the desk beside him and said, "Tyler, you've had a lot of things happen to you in the last few weeks that a lot of adults would have trouble dealing with. I know it's hard, but you have to let go of the anger."

He started to tear up and said, "Why couldn't they fix my mom?"

"She had the best medical care possible. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, but you have to keep going and live your life. Your mother would want you to do that. You're a strong boy and I know you can do it."

He finally opened up about a number of things that were bothering him and I could see him finally relax. At the end of our talk he actually gave me his famous Tyler smile. He told me the foster parents were nice people and they had been good to him, but he knew that this was a temporary arrangement and the uncertainty of what would happen to him was causing him a lot of stress. He was also unhappy with having to change schools in the new year, because the foster parents weren't in this school district. Children's Aid had agreed to pay for transportation to and from school until the Christmas break. This last piece of information was something I was very unhappy about, as well and I wasn't sure if there was anything I could do to keep him in our school.

When I got home that evening, I had been giving a lot of thought to something and wanted to see if Louise and I were on the same page.

"We've raised two girls very successfully and we're great parents and I was thinking that..."

"That we could take him in as foster parents?" Louise said, finishing my sentence. "Mike, we're both turning 60 this year and this is not the time of our life to be raising a child. It's not fair to us and it's not fair to Tyler."

As usual, Louise was the voice of reason and I knew that she was right. However, it still didn't make me feel any better.

The week before Christmas, Tyler didn't come to school, as there was some sort of arrangement being worked out for his more permanent placement. We weren't given too many details, but I was hoping that things would work out for him. I was resigned to the fact that he was going to have to go to another school and I was sad at that prospect and the fact that the other students and I didn't get a chance to say a proper goodbye.

"I'm sure we can work something out with his new school, for him to come back here for a day in the new year," Luanne said, when we were saying goodbye for the holidays.

She didn't seem too concerned, which I found unusual, because she was very attached to the little guy, as well.

The next few days were busy, as we were getting things ready for Christmas. That was a good thing because it got my mind off Tyler. We had everything ready and on Christmas Eve the girls and their families were coming over for some eggnog, goodies and to open one of their presents which was our usual tradition. Now with our granddaughter, Taylor, it was a throwback to the days when the girls were young. When Emma and Larry arrived, I was shocked, because Tyler came bounding in with them.

"Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. It's me, Tyler."

"I wouldn't have guessed that, young man," I said, with a big smile, as I looked at Emma and Larry and wondered what was going on.

"Tyler, are you going to tell everyone your new joke," Larry said.

"Oh yeah," he said with a big smile that I hadn't seen for a while. "Why do bananas have to put on sunscreen before they go to the beach?"

"Because they can't wear a hat?" Louise replied.

"No," he said as he chuckled.

"I think you're going to have to tell us," I said, with a big smile.

"It's because they might peel," he said, as he made the appropriate gesture as he laughed.

"Tyler, why don't you join Taylor in the family room while the adults have a talk," Emma said.

Louise had left to go down to the basement and returned with a very large wrapped gift, which was for Tyler. It was now apparent that I was the only one who wasn't let in on the secret.

"When mom called and told us what was happening I got in touch with one of the social workers at the hospital and she helped us go through the process to become Tyler's foster parents," she said. "We had already been approved for foster care and we couldn't pass up this opportunity."

"If all goes well, we are going to adopt him as soon as we can," Larry added.

The transition from the other foster placement had been made at the end of the last week.

"We knew Tyler wouldn't have been able to keep the secret, so we kept him at home. Besides, it gave him a chance to get used to his new surroundings and us," Emma said.

"We couldn't be happier. He's as delightful a young boy as you kept telling us over the last few months," Larry added.

By now Tyler and Taylor had joined us in the kitchen.

"Mr. Johnson, I get to stay in your class," he said, with a big smile.

"Why don't you call me grandpa," I said to him, as I gave him a hug.

His big smile was one of the best presents I had ever received at Christmas.