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THE ASSIGNMENT

By Lois Jean Thomas

 

What would it be like to have a regular family instead of a religious family? Rebecca wonders for the thousandth time in her young life.

It is January 1963, and Rebecca sits at the third desk, fifth row in Mrs. Bass’s well- ordered classroom. Mrs. Edith Bass, of the thin wrinkled neck and tightly clenched jaw, the most feared teacher at Millersburg Elementary school, stands at the front of the room glaring at the twenty-eight third graders in her charge. The children sit hushed and focused, not a single desk straying from the perfect alignment of their teacher’s seating plan.

Well, perhaps Mrs. Bass is not glaring up to her usual standards of intimidation. While her eyes are stern, her lips are stretched into a half-smile. Her students have just returned from their Christmas vacation, and there is something about the holidays that softens the austere Mrs. Bass, relaxing her severity a bit. She has just indulged her sentimentality by giving her students an assignment.

“Boys and girls,” she has just said, as lightheartedly as she ever says anything. “I want you to take out a piece of paper and draw a picture of what Santa Claus brought you for Christmas. Then, each of you will show your picture to the rest of the class.”

Santa Claus! The sound of the dreaded name has lowered the weight of a massive dilemma onto Rebecca’s young shoulders. A sick feeling churns in her stomach. Rebecca is an intelligent girl, and she knows full well that children from her religion are not allowed to believe in Santa Claus.

“Santa Claus is the work of the devil,” her mother has said more times than Rebecca can count. She has pointed out to Rebecca, who is good at spelling, that the word SANTA contains the same five letters as the word SATAN. They are just rearranged so as to catch unsuspecting children off guard. Rebecca’s mother has said that getting children to believe in Santa is Satan’s trick to get them to side with him against God.

 

Rebecca knows that even pretending to believe in Santa Claus by participating in Mrs. Bass’s assignment would engender the wrath of her God. But even more frightening would be the swift and sure punishment if her mother ever found out.

Rebecca doesn’t know what to do. The sick feeling in her stomach travels up to her throat, creating a choking lump. Tears sting her eyes. She thinks about raising her hand to signal Mrs. Bass to come to her desk. She imagines herself whispering to her stern teacher, “I’m not allowed to believe in Santa Claus.”

But Mrs. Bass doesn’t glance Rebecca’s way. She is slowly meandering past the first row of desks, her tall, gray-suited figure bent slightly forward, hands clasped behind her back as she inspects her students’ work. The sturdy heels of her sensible black pumps click in a steady rhythm against the cold tile floor. As she passes the desks, she instructs the students to hold up their artwork, rewarding them with her “almost” smile as they recite the lists of their Christmas bounty.

Rebecca feels frantic. I’ve got to draw something! She can’t imagine how Mrs. Bass will respond to her noncompliance if she is discovered with a blank sheet of paper.

The clicking heels have arrived at the end of the first row, and Mrs. Bass stands beside the desk of Michael Nelson. Michael is one of the tall boys in the class, so Mrs. Bass has assigned him to one of the seats in the back of the room. Michael is the fastest runner in the third grade, and he is also smart. No matter how hard Rebecca tries, she never gets 100% on her arithmetic tests like Michael does.

Michael is one of Dr. Nelson’s four sons. They live in one of those enormous houses on Fifth Street, which seems like a mansion to Rebecca. Dr. Nelson’s office is in the back of his house, and Rebecca’s father took her there to get her measles vaccination before she started first grade. Rebecca remembers her father staring at that huge house and muttering something about how much money doctors make.

Rebecca’s family always drives past Dr. Nelson’s house on their way to church, twice on Sundays and again on Wednesday evenings. She often sees Michael and his brothers playing outside in their yard. All of the Nelson boys are tall and good-looking, with platinum blonde crew cuts and deep golden tans in the summer. Rebecca sometimes thinks she likes Michael Nelson, and she gets butterflies in her stomach if he stands next to her in the cafeteria line. She secretly wishes he would like her back, but she knows that will never happen. She isn’t the kind of girl the boys like.

“What did Santa Claus bring you, Michael?” Mrs. Bass asks.

“A bicycle,” Michael says proudly. He holds up a well-drawn picture of a bicycle that fills the entire page, complete with a headlight, a basket, and a bell. Then he lays his paper on his test and leans back in his chair, his arms folded confidently across his chest. Rebecca is sure that, coming from a rich family, Michael got more than one gift at Christmas. But Michael is so at ease with his superiority that he has no need to boast.

“Very nice, Michael,” Mrs. Bass says.

Rebecca cannot imagine ever receiving a gift as big as a bicycle. She thinks about the present she got from her parents on Christmas morning. When she’d opened the lumpy package wrapped in plain white tissue paper, she’d found a nightgown her mother had sewn from a brightly patterned feed sack. As Rebecca had unfolded the nightgown and held it up, her mother’s beaming face had told her she was waiting for her daughter’s squeal of delight. “It’s really pretty,” Rebecca had said. She isn’t a girl who likes hurting other people’s feelings. But inside, she’d been thinking, you should’ve given me more than this. Oh, she knew they had a big family, and that her father didn’t make a lot of money. But still, it wasn’t enough.

If it hadn’t been for Uncle Frank, Christmas morning would have been a complete disappointment for Rebecca. A month before Christmas, Uncle Frank had dropped off a large cardboard box full of gifts, which Rebecca’s mother had quickly stashed away in the attic. In the following weeks, Rebecca had made many furtive trips up the stairs to the attic to inspect the box’s treasures. The individually wrapped packages were marked with the names of the seven children in Rebecca’s family: James, Elizabeth, Daniel, Rebecca, Samuel, Lydia, and Luke – all good, solid biblical names. But Uncle Frank is not as serious-minded as Rebecca’s parents, and he’d actually marked the packages with the nicknames he used for his nieces and nephews: like Jimmy, Betsy, and Danny. One awkwardly-wrapped, mummy-shaped package had a taped-on label that said “Becky.” Hardly anyone ever calls Rebecca “Becky,” and when she’d read the label aloud, she’d enjoyed the lighthearted sound of the word.

Rebecca would’ve never considered doing something as wrong as unwrapping a gift to take a peek at it, then wrapping it back up. But she had decided there was nothing really wrong about sniffing a present. Eight or nine times in that month before Christmas, Rebecca had picked up that mummy-shaped package, squeezed it just a little bit, and held it to her nose. The scent of the rubber and the shape and feel of the package told her that Uncle Frank had given her a doll.

When Rebecca had opened that package on Christmas morning, she’d found she was right. The rubber baby doll with molded hair and painted-on eyes that never closed, was wearing nothing but a triangle-shaped flannel diaper held in place by a single safety pin. The doll was meant for a girl much younger than Rebecca, someone more her sister Lydia’s age. But Rebecca hadn’t minded that much. She had carefully wrapped the rubber doll in her headscarf and cradled it in her arms, pretending that she had a worldly-wise uncle who had bought her something grand.

I can draw a doll, Rebecca thinks as Mrs. Bass’s heels march slowly but purposefully past the second row of desks. She doesn’t need to tell what kind of doll it is. She can pretend it is one of those dolls that stands three feet tall, with silky hair in a ponytail, pouty lips, and long-lashed eyelids that open and close. She closes her eyes and tries to picture how to draw a doll like that, wearing its frilly child-size dress and shiny black-buckled shoes.

Mrs. Bass has stopped by the desk of Candace Scott, the smallest child in the class. Candace is the size of a first grader, rather than a third grader, and she is the most beautiful little girl that Rebecca knows. Candace’s mother enjoys dressing up her delicate daughter like the doll she resembles. Candace is the only girl in the class who wears crinolines under her fancy little puff-sleeve dresses. Her dark hair is styled in ringlets that surround her angelic face.

Rebecca often considers her own chubby plainness and wonders what it would be like to be as exquisitely cute as Candace Scott. But while she envies Candace, she can’t possibly dislike her, because Candace’s disposition is as sweet as her nickname. Rebecca just counts herself fortunate if she has the opportunity to walk around the perimeter of the playground at recess, holding hands with the lovely Candace. Sometimes when she sits by Candace at lunch, Candace good-naturedly offers the Twinkies from her shiny pink lunchbox in exchange for the homemade sugar cookies with the burnt edges from Rebecca’s brown bag lunch.

Now, at Mrs. Bass’s request, Candace is holding up her Christmas drawing, her brown eyes sparkling in her dimpled face. Rebecca cannot make out all the gifts Candace has drawn, but she can see that the page is crammed full. Candace has even taken out her crayons and colored some of the gifts.

“Very nice, Candace,” Mrs. Bass says.

Rebecca imagines how beautifully all of Candace’s gifts must have been wrapped. In her mind, she pictures piles and piles of boxes under a wide-reaching tree strung with bright lights. All the boxes are expertly wrapped in various hues of shiny foil paper and topped with lavish bows. The gifts are piled under the tree for weeks, teasing and tantalizing Candace as she eagerly awaits the arrival of Christmas day. Rebecca imagines Candace tearing into her gifts with abandon, while her doting parents vicariously enjoy the pleasure of their only child.

Christmas trees are not allowed at Rebecca’s house. Rebecca’s parents consider them to be worldly and sinful, in the same category as Santa Claus. And there are no wrapped gifts lying around in plain sight. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve day, Rebecca’s mother disappears into her bedroom to wrap her children’s gifts in white tissue paper. She ties them up with cheap skinny ribbon that doesn’t curl properly when you run the edge of the scissors over the length of it.

The only Christmas decoration at Rebecca’s house is the cardboard nativity scene. The figures of the shepherds and wise-men stand upright when wedged into slitted tabs. Rebecca and her brothers and sisters always argue about who gets to put the nativity scene together. This year, their mother had picked James and Daniel to do the job. One of the cardboard sheep had been missing, so James had drawn one on a piece of paper to put in its place. Rebecca didn’t think it looked right.

On Christmas morning, Rebecca’s mother had arranged the gifts in a semicircle around the nativity scene, to make sure her children were reminded of the true meaning of the holiday.

This year, Rebecca had been able to talk her father into purchasing a single can of artificial spray snow for decorating the large window above the couch in the living room. When it came to Christmas decorations, snow was in a neutral category. It wasn’t holy like the Baby Jesus, but it wasn’t sinful like Santa Claus and Christmas trees.

So, Rebecca had put forth her best effort in adorning the window with frosty swirls of aerosol snow. When she had run out the front door to check the view from the outside, the little ones, Luke and Lydia, leaned over the back of the couch and ran their naughty fingers through the sticky white stuff on the windowpane, ruining Rebecca’s handiwork. And Rebecca had known then that there was no longer any possibility for magic during that holiday season.

Rebecca thinks about her feed-sack nightgown. She’s heard some people call a nightgown a “night dress.” I can say I got a dress for Christmas, she thinks. She imagines what kind of dress Candace Scott would unwrap on Christmas morning.

As Mrs. Bass’s clicking heels begin their journey past the third row of desks, Rebecca glances sideways to see what Dennis Hawkins is doing. Dennis sits directly to Rebecca’s left, in the fourth row, and he hardly ever does anything right. Dennis is one of the Hawkins twins. His brother Donald was held back a year and is still in second grade. Dennis was lucky to make it to the third grade, as he is the slowest learner in the class.

The Hawkins twins come from the kind of family that inspires Rebecca’s parents to acts of charity. As part of their church mission work, Rebecca’s parents search throughout the hills and backroads of the county for poor, backward families that need to know the Lord. Rebecca’s parents invite these families to church and attempt to set them on a path of godly living. Rebecca’s mother likes to put together care packages of baked goods and garden vegetables for these poor folks, and her father loads up the packages and carries them to their destinations in his tired old Chevy.

Dennis Hawkins needs glasses, and he bends down and holds his face close to his work in order to see what he’s doing. His hair spikes out from his head in dirty clumps. Grinning stupidly, he clutches his dull-pointed pencil in his grimy hand, pressing down hard as he draws. A pink Kool-Aid stain forms a mustache over his mouth. Rebecca can see that Dennis has three or four objects on his page, although she can’t tell what he’s attempting to draw. But it looks as if even Dennis Hawkins had a better Christmas than she had.

Suddenly, Rebecca thinks of something else she can draw. Last summer, her parents had witnessed about the Lord to one of their charity families, and the indolent husband had stopped drinking whiskey and started coming to church. Several months later, he’d shown up at Rebecca’s parents’ house, hapless drunk turned enthusiastic encyclopedia salesman. Pleased with the young man’s reformation, Rebecca’s parents had invited him into their living room and had patiently sat through his amateurish sales pitch. Then, they’d retreated to the kitchen for a private consultation.

Rebecca, who was washing dishes at the time, had overheard her father whisper that they couldn’t afford to buy the encyclopedias. But her mother whispered back that they needed to reward the young man’s effort to support his family like a godly man should. She’d convinced Rebecca’s father that the purchase could be counted as an early Christmas gift for the children.

Rebecca decides that at least one of the books in that twenty-two-volume set of encyclopedias could be counted as hers. In fact, she reasons that she could rightfully claim three of them. She could say she got books for Christmas, even though they had hadn’t been wrapped up and set beside the nativity scene.

Then, Rebecca remembers another gift she had received. Her five-year-old sister Lydia, who is too young to be disillusioned, had cut scrap paper into misshapen squares and stapled them together crookedly. Then, she had filled the pages of her homemade book with pictures of flowers, rainbows, and silly looking kitty cats. She had proudly presented her creation to Rebecca, her idolized older sister, on Christmas morning.

That counts as another book, Rebecca thinks. That makes four.

Mrs. Bass is rounding the last desk in the third row and is slowly moving up the fourth row. Through the spaces between the desks, Rebecca watches the sensible black pumps moving in their slow, steady rhythm. Then she stares down at her empty paper. She is running out of time.

Taking a deep breath, she begins drawing hurriedly. She makes four rectangles for the books, a stick figure for the doll, and a simple silhouette of a dress, with a neck hole, two sleeves, and a boxy skirt. She renders these as faint, tiny scrawls on the bottom of her page. There is no need to magnify her lie.

Suddenly, Rebecca is aware that Mrs. Bass is standing by the desk of Julia McDonald, the redheaded girl who sits in front of Rebecca in the fifth row.

“Very nice, Julia,” Mrs. Bass is saying. Julia’s freckled face crinkles with pleasure at her teacher’s approval. She bobs her head, and her carrot-colored ponytail swishes from side to side.

Rebecca startles. She’s been so absorbed in her own worried thoughts that she didn’t even hear Julia say what Santa Claus had brought her.

Click, click, click, march the heels. Three steps, and Mrs. Bass looms tall over Rebecca’s desk. Rebecca holds her breath, dreading the awful inquisition.

“And Rebecca,” Mrs. Bass says, almost pleasantly. “What did you get for Christmas?”

Rebecca exhales with relief. The fact that Mrs. Bass has not uttered the dreaded name of Santa Claus removes part of her dilemma. She obligingly holds up her paper with the faint scrawls, then quickly lowers it.

“I got a doll and a dress and four books.” She recites her short list in a cheerful, singsong voice. She feels hot shame flushing her face. She ducks her head, covering her tiny drawings with her plump hand.

Mrs. Bass stands unmoving, the seconds seeming like hours to Rebecca. She glances up and catches a glimpse of Mrs. Bass’s furrowed brow and puzzled gaze.

She knows, Rebecca thinks, as the heat of her shame spreads throughout her body.

Mrs. Bass clears her throat. “Very nice, Rebecca,” she says, smiling her almost smile.

Then the sensible heels begin their click, click, clicking, stopping at the desk behind Rebecca’s. “How about you, Russell?” Mrs. Bass intones. “What did Santa Claus bring you for Christmas?”