The Spirit of Christmas

It was the early 1980’s.  That year, yet another new schoolteacher had moved into the modular housing unit that the school district had parked on skids behind the ramshackle log and plywood structure which served as the Moose Hole Community Center and Village Council Hall.  The teacher’s name was Mr. Manfred.  He was the most recent of a long line of bright-eyed idealists who had ventured into rural Alaska to experience the fulfillment of educating little wide-eyed bush kids.  I don’t know who kept telling these teachers that we bush kids were sitting around just quivering with the anticipation of having our potential unlocked.  Most of them lasted about two and a half years at the maximum before their disillusionment reached critical mass.  As it turned out, bush kids weren’t eager receptacles, thirsting to drink in whatever information would blossom them into responsible citizens.  At least not us bush kids at Moose Hole Public School.

Who wanted to take responsible citizen lessons when you could be outside racing snow machines across Moose Hole Lake, or ice fishing for Northern Pike or riding car hoods down the bald spot on Ptarmigan Knob?  We were quite content with our lives, thank you very much.  But somehow teachers refused to understand that.  So we took it upon ourselves to cure these arrogant strangers of the misguided notion that they somehow had anything of interest to offer us.  We took our mission very seriously.  We diligently employed every means at our disposal to persuade each new teacher that their agenda was both tyrannical and futile. 

By the time Thanksgiving had come and gone, Mr. Manfred had become the recipient of the standard treatment.  There had been several tacks in his chair.  Unflattering drawings of him had mysteriously appeared on the blackboard.  His lunch sandwiches had been laced with hot peppers and he had discovered frogs in his coffee.  There had even been an unfortunate accident in which the restroom door had somehow become jammed as he was attending the call of nature, while at the same time a fire extinguisher had inexplicably discharged itself through the crack under the restroom door.

Typically, by this point in the process, the teacher would be showing signs of stress.  This could manifest in various ways.  Sometimes his speech patterns would change, causing him to stutter or to randomly lapse into a high-pitched tremolo.  She might develop a noticeable facial tic.  Or he might take up the habit of abruptly leaving the classroom for extended periods of time. 

In special circumstances, a precisely calculated amount of duress could be applied, resulting in the teacher handing out punitively time-intensive homework assignments.  This created an opportunity for us to innocently and tearfully complain to our parents about our unjust treatment at the hands of an unreasonable tyrant.  Goading the teacher into homework revenge mode was considerably more work than we would have preferred, but we had learned that as a long term strategy, disgruntled parents could be a powerful weapon in the War on Teachers.

Sadly, Mr. Manfred seemed completely immune to our tactics.  A semester was nearly spent, and yet we could detect no noticeable change in his behavior.  He continued to arrive at school on time with a cheerful smile.  He greeted us all as if he were genuinely happy to see us, and never appeared too busy to devote personal attention to our questions or concerns, no matter how trivial.  To top it off, he consistently dispensed both discipline and homework with fairness and mercy.  I’m telling you, the guy was incorrigible!

It got so bad, that some of us even began to feel a twinge of remorse for the way we had treated him.  That was when we knew that we were really in trouble.  We struggled to maintain our tenuous grip on reality.  It would never do to allow ourselves to be sucked into the big lie!  Once a kid capitulates to authority, it’s the beginning of the end.  Everything just goes downhill from there.  We had seen it.  Some of our friends had shamelessly caved, buckling down to studying as if it actually mattered.  The aftermath of such fateful capitulation had been ghastly.  Those unfortunate victims had never been the same again. 

Some attrition was to be expected, of course.  Every couple of years or so, we could count on losing one or two.  But this?  What we were up against with Mr. Manfred was a threat of a whole new magnitude!  By the first week of December, there had been enough conversation among us that we all had confessed to increasingly frequent struggles with a soft spot for Mr. Manfred.  Clearly something drastic had to be done before it was too late.

So we hatched a plan.  Deep in the root cellar beneath Larry Fred’s uncle’s cabin, a determined band of us gathered.  There by the hissing light of an Aladdin lamp, we made a solemn pact that we would ruin Mr. Manfred before Christmas.  To seal the vow, we agreed that should we fail in our mission, each of us would bring our favorite Christmas gift to Anika Van der Veen’s backyard at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  There we would place them in the great big honkin’ incinerator that Anika’s dad had welded out of half-inch steel.  Then we would throw kerosene on our precious gifts and watch them burn to ashes.  If that wasn’t motivation enough to guarantee that we would see our assignment through, nothing would be.

You see, just as we loathed and detested teachers, so we were entirely enthralled by Christmas.  Why, Christmas was a glorious massive hedonistic orgy of self-gratification.  The whole point of Christmas was to expand our inventory of stuff so that we could gloat to each other about who got the most, coolest and most expensive loot.  We would do anything to maintain our post-Christmas gloating rights.  That was why the gift-burning pact was so ironclad.

The plan was elaborate but we were convinced that it was foolproof.  It involved a coordinated effort, split second timing, and quite a bit of gear.  We decided to divvy the gear up among us.  It would be easier to smuggle it into the school that way.  Mr. Manfred might become curious if one of us came to class on Monday with a giant duffle bag.  Anika would bring the coyote urine lure disguised as perfume.  Larry Fred’s lunchbox would hold a length of 30 lb. test fishing line and half-a-dozen halibut sized treble hooks.  The Smorkstini twins would handle the straight razor, the fluorescent orange dye and the super glue.  My brother Justin volunteered to provide the grizzly pepper spray and I said I’d bring the hog tattooing hammer and ink.  Last but not least, Walrus Fahnestock offered to snitch his Dad’s old straightjacket.  He was pretty sure his Dad wouldn’t miss it since he hadn’t used it for a good 6 months or so.

Phase one went off without a hitch.  We successfully smuggled all the gear right into the classroom under the very nose of Mr. Manfred.  Each one of us knew exactly what our task was.  As soon as the bell rang for recess we would go to work.

The thing was, just before recess Mr. Manfred threw a monkey wrench in our plans.  He wished us all a blessed Christmas and, beaming beatifically, announced a special contest.  Our assignment was to submit a creative entry, using any medium we chose, which we thought best depicted the Spirit of Christmas.  The winning student would receive a brand new Walkman portable audiocassette player.  Second place would receive a gift certificate for an ice cream sundae at Moose Hole Lodge.  Third place would earn an extra recess each day for a week.

Well, the recess we could resist.  It was no big deal, since we made a point of taking recess whenever we chose.  The ice cream sundae, though tempting, was not incentive enough to outweigh the importance of our mission. But the Walkman?  Oh my!  Back then before the advent of iPods and MP3, a Walkman was the Holy Grail.  Why, a fellow could listen to taboo music like KISS and Twisted Sister right in the middle of class and nobody would even know it.  Rumor had it that the Walkman had been developed using recently declassified NASA technology.  No one else in Moose Hole had one, or even touched one, for that matter.  It would be the supreme acquisition, earning its owner unrivaled gloating rights for several Christmases to come.

We didn’t even need to discuss it.  By mutual, unspoken impulse the scheduled teacher ruining was postponed until after the end of the contest.  Instead, we began to pour our energy and imagination into besting each other at the Christmas Spirit contest.  Brunhilda Glomdiddly, our resident silver-tongued orator, began memorizing the entire classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  Jack Smorkstini began crafting a scale model of Santa’s workshop completely out of candy canes.  His sister, Jill, began rehearsing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on her kazoo.  I set a caribou trap in the back yard and built a blinking red nose to put on it after I had tamed it.  Anika Van der Veen began baking the world’s largest gingerbread house.  The most ambitious project, however, was Walrus’.  He set about constructing a five-story tall Frosty the Snowman on the ice in the middle of Moose Hole Lake.

Then it happened!  The night before the project was due, Mr. Manfred found himself taking a midnight stroll down by the lake.  Suddenly, he heard a great creaking and groaning, followed by a thunderous crack.  Then the echo of a huge splash reverberated throughout the river valley, accompanied by the sound of Walrus Fahnestock’s terrified screams.  Frosty has grown too heavy for the lake ice to hold him.  Now Walrus’ disintegrating project was plunging toward bottom of Moose Hole Lake, while Walrus himself struggled to stay afloat in the icy water, his clothes freezing to his rapidly numbing body.

Without a second’s hesitation, Mr. Manfred leaped to the rescue.  He was able to grab some branches, scoot out onto the ice on his belly and slide the branches close enough for Walrus to grasp.  If he hadn’t been there and acted as quickly as he did, we would certainly have lost Walrus that night.  As it was, we nearly lost Mr. Manfred.  He had gotten soaking wet during the rescue, and not having as much avoirdupois as Walrus to keep him warm, ended up with hypothermia, bronchitis and double pneumonia. 

By the time he got out of the hospital, the deadlines for both the contest and the teacher ruining had come and gone.  But, somehow, we didn’t care.  Mr. Manfred had shown us what the true Spirit of Christmas was all about.  When he returned to class we greeted him with a welcome back party.  There under the classroom Christmas tree was a clumsily wrapped gift from each of us.  Instead of incinerating them, we had given our favorite Christmas gifts to our favorite teacher.  I understand that Mr. Manfred continued teaching at Moose Hole School until he retired several years later. 

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