by Emily Pritchard
Many Christmases ago, a young teacher at Carlisle School in Clarksburg, West Virginia received the gift of compassion by precipitating a tragedy.
The teacher, Adelaide Stuart, was fresh out of college and burdened with her own tragedy of sorts. Her father, for years the sole owner of Stuart Plumbing and Heating Company, died suddenly just one month after agreeing to admit a partner. Because his death occurred before lawyers had prepared papers allowing for such a circumstance, his widow forfeited the business and, consequently, all means of support.
Overnight, she became dependent upon her daughter, Adelaide, a terrifying situation for two shocked and bewildered women.
With the help of friends and her high school principal, Adelaide finished college on a scholarship and embarked upon a career which promised personal satisfaction.
In those days, most public schools celebrated the Christmas season with a religious pageant. This required preparation: a script, special music, and elaborate costumes. Adelaide calculated the cost of materials and quickly became alarmed.
She could hand-copy the script for each student and teach the music by rote, but the long dresses and robes required expensive bolts of cloth. She simply did not have enough money for the production that she envisioned and the parents expected.
An older, more experience teacher came to her rescue. “I always ask the mothers to supply the costume,” she advised. “The trick is to give the leading roles to children whose parents can afford to buy the material and have time to do the sewing.”
This sounded like a sensible solution to Adelaide, who was overwhelmed by her new job’s demands of time and energy. So when Mary, a thin, undernourished child, asked hesitantly to play the part of the Virginia Mary, Adelaide swallowed and replied, “Not this time, dear, but you can sing in the choir.”
“Oh please, Miss Stuart,” Mary begged. “My name is Mary, too. That’s why I want the part more than anything in the world.
One glance at the sweet child and Adelaide nearly relented, but practicality came to the fore. Mary’s family simply could not afford an appropriate costume. Adelaide realized that she would have to make it herself. If she established that precedent, she could not deny other children in the future.
Remembering the advice of her experienced colleague, Adelaide took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, Mary. Not this time.”
The little girl’s eyes filled with tears; she did not see that her teacher’s
eyes also were brimming.
Every parent attending the pageant congratulated Adelaide on her wonderful program. Secure in the knowledge that it had been a success and that she had handled Mary’s plaintive request sensibly, she relaxed and enjoyed her Christmas holidays. Inwardly, she vowed to do something nice for Mary later in the year, perhaps appoint Mary to be Queen of the May and fashion her a lovely gown from one of her own outgrown spring frocks.
But that was not be.
As her students trooped back into class at the start of the New Year, Adelaide noticed that Mary’s seat was empty. It was not like her to be absent. “I wonder where Mary is,” she mused aloud.
A little girl in the front row piped up, “Oh, didn’t you hear, Miss Stuart? Mary died last week.”
Adelaide’s initial reaction was that the child had uttered a cruel joke, but she broke into uncontrollable trembling as she marked the somber faces of Mary’s classmates.
After the shock, hot tears flowed profusely. Everyone said that Mary had died of pneumonia; Adelaide knew she died of a broken heart.
Throughout the rest of her life, Adelaide tried to atone for that tragedy in the only way she knew. Each Christmas, she involved herself in school and church pageants, spending untold hours creating costumes and scenery for children whose mothers were too poor or too weary to help.
Jokingly, my father chided her for spending more time with others at Christmas than with our own family, but we all understood her crusade.
Adelaide, you see, was my mother.
Although Mary died many years before I was born, her spirit has influenced my own life and career. As a teacher, like my mother, I choose activities that enable every student to taste success. All our plays boast large casts so that everyone participates equally. The bulletin boards groan with work from every student, no matter how uncreative or imperfect some examples might appear to the viewer. My mother’s goal became mine: to help each child feel successful in some way so that Mary’s sacrifice any years ago in Clarksburg was not in vain.
Truly, the spirit of Christmas is relentless, despite man’s frailties. Even when we shun its true meaning, it seeks us out by twisting sorrow into celebrations of man’s moral character, thereby illuminating our earthly blessing…and our dependency upon one another.
©2004 Emily Pritchard All rights reserved.
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