Arts & Culture

Why I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus, Part 3

"Say ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’" Mr. Dennis instructed a student. I could have taken the picture and nobody would have known the difference-nobody but parents ever saw these pictures. But suddenly the Christmas tree was wrong. I didn’t understand why I was so angry … Read More

By / December 30, 2008

"Say ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’" Mr. Dennis instructed a student.

I could have taken the picture and nobody would have known the difference-nobody but parents ever saw these pictures. But suddenly the Christmas tree was wrong. I didn’t understand why I was so angry so abruptly, but I refused to cooperate.

"What do you mean, no?" asked Mr. Dennis.

"I’m not taking a picture in front of something I don’t celebrate. I’m Jewish." Mr. Dennis locked his jaw, but he wasn’t surprised. Though my second-grade teacher had not yet sent me to his office, I had visited Mr. Dennis in kindergarten and first grade because of "behavioral problems." These amounted to eye rolling and talking back-behavior I had seen my grandmother model. What neither my teachers nor Mr. Dennis ever realized was that there were patterns to my behavior.

I caused trouble when I felt threatened. And that almost always happened on holidays. For instance, in first grade, on Mother’s Day, the teacher had us sit in a circle and, one by one, recite a favorite thing about our mothers.Well, what was I supposed to say? My favorite thing about my mother is how she never calls or visits. No thank you. I was so scared someone would figure out I didn’t have a mother at home and laugh at me that I ran across to the art-supplies table and knocked it over. Pasta and rice and finger paints spilled all over the carpet. My teacher was so furious she sent me directly to Mr. Dennis. But Mr. Dennis didn’t ask me any questions, either. Instead he stared at the space just above my head and recited some jargon about the school’s high expectations. Because he was afraid of upsetting parents-they were potential donors, after all-he never bothered calling home to investigate. Now it was Christmas, and I was causing a scene all over again, but he still didn’t get it.

"Matthew. Just say ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ and smile," he said, not smiling. "You want to be a good boy so Santa comes and visits you, right?"

"I don’t care about your dumb Santa. I’m not Ho! Ho! Ho!-ing anything, and I already told you I’m not taking a picture in front of a tree I don’t celebrate!"

"Fine," he said, snatching the hat out of my hands. "Then you can’t be Student of the Month." I knew that he didn’t want to make a scene and that if I apologized, all would be forgotten. I’d get my picture taken, and he’d be on to the next child. But I was really angry now.

"I don’t want to be the dumb Student of the dumb Month!" I shouted. "It’s not like you need me. You have twenty other jerks right here!" I ran out of the room, and Mr. Dennis screamed after me, "Rothschild, you’ll never be Student of the Month again!"

I ran past the classrooms of my school and saw for the first time that each was decorated with Christmas propaganda. There were cardboard cutouts of Santa and those little dwarfs he carted around with him. Some classrooms had plastic dolls wearing sheets hanging around a barnyard. Christmas, Christmas, everywhere, but not a single present for me! When I finally returned to class, my teacher saw that I was crying. She quietly asked her teaching assistant to take over and pulled me aside.

"What’s the matter?" she asked.

"Mr. . . . Dennis . . . took. . . He took my hat. . . ." I sobbed.

After calming down, I told her what had happened. I asked her to call my grandmother; Iwanted to go home. I could have asked for my grandfather instead, but I was already scheming beneath my tears. I knew what would happen if my grandmother showed up, and I wanted revenge. "Oh, he did, did he?" I could hear my grandmother shouting through the receiver when my teacher called her. "I’ll drop-kick his Santa-loving ass from here to Macy’s."

When my grandmother showed up, I heard her long before I saw her.

"Where is he? Where’s that son of a bitch?" she was shouting. "I’m going to call the United Jewish Appeal. I’m calling the Associated Press! Does he know I’m on the board of Hadassah?"

She was not, but she knew that her bluff would be taken seriously, and she was quickly ushered into Mr. Dennis’s office. These were halls where children were encouraged to speak in a whisper, where "sucks" was a terrible word, and my grandmother’s intrusion was not welcome. My teachers blushed and closed the door.

The PA system beeped. It was my grandmother, paging me, calling me down to Mr. Dennis’s office. I could also hear Mr. Dennis in the background saying that it was his office, his intercom to use. Before the message ended, I heard my grandmother telling him to shut up.

"If you weren’t so stupid, I-"

The intercom went dead, and the class stared at me in a mixture of curiosity and awe. I shrugged my shoulders.

True, she wasn’t the type of grandmother who baked or knitted; she was the type who would bail you out of jail or take bartending jobs on the weekends for the free drinks-except she had married my grandfather and was relegated instead to a world of charity luncheons and teas. She lived for confrontations like these.

Walking into Mr. Dennis’s office, I saw that the color had drained from his face. My grandmother’s face was red, as if she had sucked the color out of Mr.Dennis’s. My grandfather sat chomping on a cigar. Since retiring, he often tagged along with my grandmother, entertained by a woman who could make attending the movies an adventure. Secretly, I know he envied my grandmother’s problem-solving style: a cross between physical violence and public humiliation. Unlike mygrandfather, she didn’t care what people thought, and that was her not-so-secret weapon.

"Mr. Dennis has something he would like to say to you, Matthew," announced my grandmother, sitting down.

Mr. Dennis withered under her gaze and turned to me. "I’m sorry that it seemed I wasn’t respecting your cultural beliefs. I never meant to insult your religion; I just thought you were fooling around."

"And?" said my grandmother.

"We should have had another scene for your picture."

"And?"

Mr. Dennis looked at her, his eyes pleading. "You can’t be serious."

She raised an eyebrow. "One phone call," she said. "That’s all it would take."

It was like watching a private conversation between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. My guns are bigger than your guns, she was saying. Mr. Dennis was just another oil painting in a suit to her, and he would be knocked from his pretentious pedestal.

My grandfather’s cigar sat poised on his lips.

"And . . ." Mr. Dennis sighed, lowering his voice. "There’s no Santa Claus."

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" said my grandfather, lighting up the cigar.

It was like hearing that there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy or Thanksgiving.

"But I’ve seen him," I said. "On the street ringing his bell, asking for money."

"No, Matthew," said Mr.Dennis, "those are men in costume. Santa is pretend."

I had been wondering how Santa could be both black and white and still be the same man.

 "This will be our little secret," said Mr. Dennis. "Okay?"

"Okay," I said, wondering whom I would tell first. I thought of Chandler, a kid from my class who had bragged all about the great presents Santa was bringing him, and I imagined him crying over this news. A smile spread across my face.

"That’ll do," said my grandmother. "Come on, Howard, let’s take Matthew to lunch; it’s almost his feeding time."

"Do I get my hat back?" I asked.

Mr. Dennis reached into a drawer for the hat and set it on his  desk. I studied it, then looked at him.

"Well?" he asked.

"He wants you to put it on his head, moron," said my grandmother. "What, have you never seen a child before? Do they not grow them where you come from?"

Mr. Dennis turned red, and he attempted to secure the hat on my head.

As we were leaving, my grandfather said, "Why do we pay so much money for inadequate American education? This never would have happened in France."

"Yeah," said my grandmother,"it’s much better in France, where they’ve replaced study hall with lessons on how to blow perfect smoke rings with your unfiltered cigarette."

My grandfather started to say something, but my grandmother cut him off.

"Get in the car, Howard; I have a menorah to dig out of storage."

And although I expected it-we were right in the middle of December, after all-I did not hear him complain once that the car was white.