They Came My Way
“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.”
It was 1965. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and 2,600 others were arrested in Selma, Alabama, protesting voter registration rules. Soviet Cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov performed the first spacewalk. Two U.S. Astronomers confirmed the Big Bang Theory.
Ralph Nader began his American cultural influence saga, which continues nearly 50 years later, writing his first book, Unsafe At Any Speed. Songwriter Jerry Hermann won the Song of the Year Grammy, Hello, Dolly! UCLA took another NCAA basketball championship under the leadership of the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden.
U.S. life expectancy was 70.2 years. A first class stamp cost $0.05. Unemployment rested at 5.2%.
The Christmas Season has offered its alluring magic to me since I was a little boy. While that little boy has now become a Senior, the magic of the season never has disappeared. Rather, it renews itself annually in the celebration of innocence that is the holidays.
Among the countless memories that fill my imaginary album of remembrances is an incredibly special1965 Christmas story which I am putting to pen in this They Came My Way reflection about Howard~ The Gift.
I was a Sophomore at USC. As school began in September, I applied for the M-F afternoon recreation supervisor at 32nd Street School, an inner city K-6 school near the university campus. My final interview was with the School Principal, Mr. Parrish. When he hired me, he immediately informed me there was a special adult who was allowed to come onto the playground every afternoon to play with the school children. His name was Howard.
Howard was a mentally impaired, physically-limited 35 year-old adult who had a child’s 7 year old mind. He lived with his mom and dad across the street from the school. A couple of years earlier, Howard’s parents visited Mr. Parrish to ask if Howard could be allowed on the playground with the 32nd Street school children in the afternoon. The idea was tested. It worked. Howard was the afternoon playground Big Kid among many kids.
It was 3pm on a mid-September Monday when I arrived for my first afternoon on the job. There at the locked gate waiting for me was Howard. As I approached with the key, he instantly knew, I was the New Guy. With a smile that filled his entire round face and crew haircut, he reached out his hand and said, “I’m Howard. I like to play!”
Fast forward three months to December. Now a seasoned after-school supervisor, I loved my afterschool kids and my buddy, Howard. I agreed to be the Supervisor for the two week Christmas break, extending my daily hours from 9am -4pm. Howard was there every day, all day!
I wanted to create a Christmas Party for the children on December 24th. I bought refreshments and gifts, anticipating that I had purchased bought a sufficient quantity so that every child would receive a gift.
But by Christmas Eve morning as the mid-day party was approaching, I was experiencing high anxiety. The word was out. There’ was a Christmas Party at 32nd Street School! By 11 am the playground was teeming with far more children than I had planned.
A Christmas disaster appeared to be on my doorstep! I sent someone to get more cookies and punch, but was there absolutely no way I would have enough gifts for everyone. It was then I got an idea…one I knew was risky. I would not distribute the gifts. I would not bring them from my car. I would bring one gift that I kept inside a bag.
I remembered there was a roll of raffle tickets in the school office. I found it. As the party began and we sat at tables getting ready for games, I asked every child to write their name and put it in an open box. There were more than 100 tickets inside the box; Howard’s was among them.
After our special Christmas relay games, we returned to the tables for refreshments. We sang holiday songs. Then, I got everyone’s attention and said, “I wanted to do something special for each of you; I had hoped to give a gift to each of you. But I did not plan well. I do not want to disappoint anyone.”
Now holding the bag I had brought from my car, I opened it and pulled out the most expensive gift I had purchased. It was a Rawlings Baseball glove. I continued, “You know the little ticket with your name? I am going to pull one ticket from the box. One person is going to receive a gift that is being given from all of you! We will celebrate one receiving The Gift from all of us.”
I asked a child to pull a ticket from the box and hand it to me. I looked at the ticket. I could not believe my eyes. I said, “Howard, come get your new mitt! Howard was sitting a distance from me. He walked toward me until he was in beside me to receive his beautiful, new baseball mitt. As he took it, he turned to his younger friends and stuck that mitt into the air! He was overjoyed!
I now know that the mitt was not really The Gift that day. No, there was something far more precious that happened in that moment of December, 1965 that falls afresh on me…again…as I recall what those 100-plus kids chanted as Howard lifted his new mitt high…from one child to another, the murmur became a thunderous celebration by all… Howard got the mitt! Howard got the mitt; Howard got the mitt!
Those children touched a soul with deep, rich, timeless love. In that moment I was in the midst of a community of kids on holy ground.
The children of 32nd Street School and their friend, Howard, came my way to give me The Gift of Innocence. For me it remains the timeless gift in this most meaningful season.