"Children, you have homework tonight. I want you to go home and ask your parents if they can donate a Christmas tree. It would be so nice to have our own tree here in the classroom. So ask them tonight - don't forget!"
My second grade teacher Mrs. Hellums was one of my favorite teachers ever. She had brown curly hair and said I looked like the girl who played Laura Ingalls on TV.
On heavy hot days when our un-airconditioned classroom felt like a clay oven, Ms. Hellums would call us to the front of the room to sit in a semi-circle at her feet for story time. We worked our way through the entire Little House on the Prairie Series, hour by hour after lunch. When the heat became so heavy that even she couldn't stand to read anymore she would ask us all to close our eyes and imagine that we were floating on an iceberg on the South Pole. She would ask us what it felt like ("cold!") and what we heard ("water splashing against our iceberg") and what we saw ("a polar bear swimming by"). The most important lesson we learned in her classroom was that we had the ability to imagine our way out of difficult circumstances and into a better reality.
Years later I would learn that polar bears are only found at the other end of the globe, in the Arctic Circle. I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because it was a lot more fun with the polar bears there with our class floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.
After school I met my older sister Christi in front of the school for our 30-minute walk home. The very best part of the walk came first and the very worst part came right after that.
The best part was the catwalk. It was a rusty cement and steel platform encaged by chain link walls that spanned over Skyland Boulevard. We loved to pause on the catwalk above the four lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by below us and making the catwalk tremble beneath our feet. It was thrilling to be so close to speed and danger and yet to escape unscathed every time. Sometimes an 18-wheeler came by and we would pump our arms into the air, and on rare occasions the driver would honk their horn just as they passed beneath us. That was a story worth telling at the dinner table that night.
Years later I would learn that a catwalk was also a platform that models walk on at fashion shows. I'm glad I didn't know that because I prefer to think of it as a platform that school children walk on and get 18-wheelers to honk at them.
The worst part of the walk came right after the catwalk. The hill towered before us, daring us to try to scale its steep sidewalk. We had to though because there was no other way home. The only way over the hill was one exhausted breath at a time.
Two years prior, Mrs. Hellums had been Christi's second grade teacher as well so she too knew the imagination trick.
"I'm going to invent a car for us to get up this hill," Christi told me. She didn't look at me, both of us were facing forward and keeping our eye on the sidewalk in front of us. "It's going to fold up so I can keep it in my desk during the day at school and then when we get to the bottom of the hill we can unfold it and sit in it and ride it up the hill."
"What else ... is it going ... to have?" I asked. Christi had a vivid way of describing things and her enthusiasm was stoked by an eager audience. One day she would make her living off of this talent of hers and it would take her as far as the White House.
But for now we were just two tired and sweaty little schoolgirls trying to get up a monster hill. "And when ... can you have this thing ... ready?"
"Well, it's going to have a Coke machine in it too. Like at McDonald's but it will be our very own Coke machine. I mean, we can share Cokes with other kids if we want but it's going to be ours. The Coke machine is going to be right there above the steering wheel and we can have as much Coke as we want. And there will be a place where you can get Sprite out of it too. And in the glove compartment there will be snacks. Different ones every day, but always Ho Hos every day."
It was almost too much to dream about. Although the car was never built, the possibility of it nudged Christi and me up that monster hill every day inch by steady inch until at last we crested it, right at the corner where Mrs. Hellums lived. She let the kids chain their bicycles to the stop sign at the corner of her yard in the mornings because no one dared to ride their bike down the monster hill. Even with brakes, that ride would kill you.
Years later I would learn that the stop sign was city property and it was against city ordinances to chain our bikes to it but I'm glad I didn't know that at the time. It was so much nicer to think that our bikes were safe and legal in Mrs. Hellums' yard all day.
Christi never told me when the fold-up car would be ready because dreaming about something is one thing but committing to something that you know you can't deliver is quite another. We grew up in a family where story-telling was encouraged, but once you promised something you were expected to deliver. Besides, we didn't need the car. We needed the dream of the car to get us up that hill every afternoon.
We were almost home when we passed Mr. Smith's house on Crestline Drive. He was having the pine trees cut down in his yard, which was a practical and smart thing to do in Alabama in the 1970s because the pine trees were home to millions of cockroaches, who migrated from the trees to the nearby houses and back.
I burst into tears.
"Why are you crying, Mel?" Christi asked.
"Don't you think that's sad? All those trees? Just dying?"
We stood on the street looking at each other, each confused about why the other didn't understand.
My mother was always in the same place when we got home - standing at the formica countertop in the kitchen, in the corner next to the stove. I told her about the trees and how sad I felt about them. She reminded me about the cockroaches and said that was probably why Mr. Smith was having them cut down Also, his wife had recently died and perhaps he was getting his house ready to sell.
"Maybe," I said. "Oh, and Mrs. Hellums wants people to ask their parents if they can donate a tree for our classroom," I said. I knew it was a stretch for my parents to have a tree for our own house, and that donating one for a classroom was impossible. Besides, my mother was relentlessly fair so if she was going to buy a tree for my classroom, she would have to buy one for three other classrooms as well. The math in our house was always in multiples of four, and when you multiply by four even a cheeseburger becomes too expensive.
I don't remember if it was my mother or me who put together the tragedy of Mr. Smith's pines and my classroom's need for a Christmas tree but soon my mother was on the phone with him. The curly white phone cord stretched from the base of the phone to the pantry, where my mother was talking to Mr. Smith. It wasn't that the conversation was private - she was just trying to hear him and let him hear her. Although the house was fairly quiet right at that moment, you never knew when our house was going to get noisy. Maybe a sister would sit down and start practicing the piano. Maybe a door would slam. Maybe someone would start fighting. Noise was like cockroaches in our house - it appeared suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. And so when we talked on the phone we went into the pantry.
"Mr. Smith says he'll deliver a tree to your school tomorrow," my mother said as she hung the receiver back up.
"Really?" I asked, grinning.
"That's what he said," she said as she hugged me. "But let's wait and see what happens tomorrow."
Alabama pines did not make great Christmas trees. They were scraggly and their needles were a dry and pale green. If a plump Douglas fir says "all is merry and bright", a recycled Alabama pine in your living room says "this will have to do for this year." As a young child I learned the value of tinsel, which does great things to distract from the skeletal appearance of an Alabama pine. We knew the value of something shiny long before it was a thing.
The next morning when I got to my classroom our Christmas tree was already there. An admiring throng of students was gathered around it. Mrs. Hellums clapped her hands in delight when I joined them. "Look how beautiful it is!" she said. "Your neighbor delivered it early this morning."
It really was beautiful. The needles were a lush, dark green. The tree was plump and full and it chuckled "all is merry and bright."
It was not an Alabama pine from Mr. Smith's yard. It was a Douglas fir, which he had purchased at the grocery store and delivered to our classroom.
In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Hellums taught me the power of my imagination.
My mother taught me that tragedy and need can sometimes come together to produce something wonderful.
And Mr. Smith taught me the true meaning of grace.