by B.J. Stolbov
As the only (old) white man with a (long) white beard in my rural Filipino community of Northern Luzon, I get the exceedingly great pleasure every December of being Santa Claus.
I am a volunteer high school teacher. My first year here, I was asked to play Santa Claus at my high school’s Christmas assembly. I excitedly volunteered. Dressed in a red t-shirt and red jogging pants (the colors of our school), my black rubber swamp tromping boots (cleaned), a red cap with battery operated white blinking stars, my wire-rimmed glasses, and my long white beard, I, Santa Claus, appeared from the back of the stage of the school gymnasium to loud amplified blaring Christmas music.
One thousand students went wild. This was my ultimate rock star Santa Claus moment. I strode across the stage waving, and then waded down into the roaring crowd. Carrying a red bag filled with candy, I threw handfuls of candy everywhere. It was almost a sugar frenzy riot. Everyone loves Santa Claus. No wonder he does this! What a rush! I felt like Santa Claus.
Next year, I was again invited to play Santa Claus. But not only at my high school, where now, of course, everyone knew me; but also at an elementary school, where few, if any, of the kids knew me. I cheerfully accepted.
I arrived at the elementary school dressed in regular clothes, with my Santa outfit hidden in my tightly folded red bag. The principal of the school had made all the arrangements, agreeing with me that no one, except for a few teachers, would know that Santa Claus was coming to their school. In the principal’s office, I changed into my Santa outfit.
The Christmas assembly was already going on when I snuck into the back of the gymnasium. There were almost 1000 elementary students with their teachers and parents. No one noticed me. Then, at the end of the program, the principal got up on the stage and announced, “Here comes Santa Claus!”
To the surprise of the kids, I entered from the back, laughing and Ho-ho-ho-ing, through the crowd of students, teachers, and parents. Having learned my lesson from last year, instead of throwing candy, I paused and handed the candy one by one to the stunned kids. They liked the candy, but they were amazed by me. A real Santa Claus, here, at their school! Holding the candy in one hand and staring up at me, many wanted to pull on my beard. When they knew the beard was real, they were sure that I was real, and Santa Claus was here at their school.
This school has the only Elementary Special Education section in the province. The section has two Special Education teachers, some volunteer teachers, and about ten students. I met the Special Education students and teachers at the assembly and then, still dressed as Santa Claus and with a fresh bag of candy, I visited them in their classroom.
The Special Education students ranged from an autistic boy who stands near the back and says nothing to a Down’s syndrome girl who smiles, laughs, asks everyone, “Aren’t I the most beautiful girl in the world?” and never stops moving. They are happy, joyous, appreciative kids, full of life, and giving everyone their gift of love. I stayed until it was time for them, and me, to go. They didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to go.
If you are ever looking for saints anywhere in the world, find Special Education teachers. They have patience, persistence, enthusiasm, optimism, and frustration, anguish, and grief. They live the full spectrum of emotions, often every day. And they can always use your help.
If you are ever looking for love anywhere in the world, visit a Special Education class. Volunteer for an hour, a day, or more. Don’t worry if you don’t know the students’ language, they will tell you without words, through gestures, smiles, laughter, and hugs, how much you are welcomed, appreciated, and loved.
You don’t have to be an old white guy with a beard to be loved. You will be loved and your life will be changed. You don’t have to wait for Santa Claus and Christmas. For these special students, every day is Christmas. Every day they give the gift of love.