Despite being Jewish and a long way from his home in New Jersey, my 6th grade teacher Jed Castlebaum was really into the Christmas season. The big city teacher just out of college struggled a bit with connecting to us rural, poor, Christian kids, so Mr. Castlebaum tried hard and often to act like he was one of us.
He never really succeeded, but we appreciated the effort.
While planning the Christmas party for our 6th grade class (this in the years before such parties became known as "holiday parties," to remove a religious bent, although the modern ones still maintain that Christ-is-the-reason-for-the-season aroma) Mr. Castlebaum asked if anyone would volunteer to donate a Christmas tree.
I raised my hand.
It didn't occur to me, when I raised my hand, just where I was gonna get that Christmas tree. I just knew it sounded like a job I'd have fun with, so I volunteered. I arrived at home that afternoon and announced I'd volunteered to chop down and donate a tree from our farm for school, and my parents smiled at my responsible demeanor.
Their son was growing up; let's give him an ax.
After exploring the farm for a couple of hours, I couldn't find a suitable tree. Most were too high, and some were too wide. None, it seemed, were just right.
It was then I recalled the large pine trees on the property of our nearest neighbor, the Nichols family. Mrs. Nichols had a grove of pine trees I used to play in with her daughter.
I knew those trees, and knew they would be the perfect size.
I--with a friend--walked the quarter mile or so with my ax, arriving just after dusk. We slipped into the middle of the grove, where we knew a missing tree would not be easily noticed, and worked quickly to cut a tree down. It took a long while to drag that tree back to the house, but we did it. We loaded into my dad's truck, and he agreed to take it to the school the following morning.
They didn't ask, and I didn't tell.
I always felt bad about stealing Mrs. Nichols' tree. I never apologized. She's passed on now, so that's impossible. But I always felt as if I owed her something for the tree. So this Christmas, I'm dedicating our tree to Mary Nichols.
And to memories of life lessons.