When I was about 7 years old, I had a Santa Claus change purse – it looked something like this (without the creepy rolling eyes) but had a gold metal clasp at the top instead of a zipper and the beard made up the bulk of the purse.
At the time, I went to a relatively small, rural school which housed grades one through six in one building and 7 to 12 in an adjacent building connected by a catwalk. All students shared the same cafeteria which was found in the junior high/high school building. Each day at the designated hour, I would walk with my classmates to the cafeteria and have lunch. I rarely (if ever) walked home for lunch like some of my friends, although I thought it was pretty grown up to be able to walk home at noon hour and was, admittedly, a little jealous of those peers!
One or two days each week, my mom or dad would have given me $2 to buy my lunch at the cafeteria. I would dutifully line up with all the other children sliding my plastic tray along the cold steel counter to choose from such culinary offerings as sloppy joes, chicken a la king, or Salisbury steak. Invariably, I would include chocolate pudding as my dessert and this was where I learned the delight of dipping fries into chocolate pudding (I was an early adopter of the salty-meets-sweet phenomenon). However, I digress.
In my hands, would be clutched my little Santa Claus change purse ready for me to unclasp the shiny metal top and reach in for my two dollar bill.
On this one particular day, there was a total solar eclipse. There was an almost palpable level of excitement and nervous energy in the school that day. This was before the first days of the modern era of Nasa shuttle launches (those wouldn’t begin for another year or two) and anything space related was mysterious and exciting.
When it was time for lunch, I realized I didn’t have a packed lunch and didn’t have money either. I naturally concluded that my parents had finally chosen this day to allow me to walk home from school for lunch and told my teacher that I would be going home.
Now, in those days, we didn’t have fancy agendas where notes got sent to and from school – we simply told the teacher if we were getting on the bus with our friend instead of walking home or if we were staying for lunch.
However, this day was day of the total solar eclipse.
I can still remember the eerie colour of the sky as I stopped to put on my navy blue down-filled coat, toque, and mittens to go home.
My teacher gathered up all the other children and began to walk them to the cafeteria. However, she must have known something was amiss because, before I got my boots on, Mr. Brown, our principal, was standing with his hand on my shoulder. He explained to me that NONE of the children in elementary school were going home for lunch on this day due to the eclipse.
Everyone was concerned that somebody would look up at the sky and be blinded.
I can still remember the hot flush on my face as I tried to explain that I MUST be going home for lunch because I didn’t have money OR lunch. Mr. Brown told me that I needed to look more carefully through my bookbag – sure enough, there was my Santa Claus change purse, staring up at me from the depths of my bag, mocking me.
I was so embarrassed.
I had spent so much time trying to convince Mr. Brown that I was certain I was supposed to be going home for lunch that now all my friends were finished and gone to the gym for play and Mr. Brown sent me to the cafeteria to buy my lunch.
Oh, I was mortified. By the time I got to the cafeteria, it was lunchtime for the junior and senior high kids. I was convinced that every single eye was on me, the little kid, as I made my way to the line to buy some lunch. I was humiliated and felt so stupid and foolish. I just wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. I got my lunch (somehow managing to keep the tears from pouring down my face) and sat down at a table by myself to eat. It was horrible and I never used that change purse again.
As an adult, it is so easy to dismiss this kind of thing as no big deal.
To me, it was everything.
We so often forget that just because we don’t see the world the same way, it doesn’t mean that our children’s experience is any less powerful or important to them.
Perhaps, if Mr. Brown (who, by the way, was a wonderful person and a terrific principal) had walked with me to the cafeteria, or if had engaged someone (ANYONE) to sit with me, perhaps then my memory would be different.
But it isn’t.
More than 3 decades later, I can still feel the burning of my cheeks, feel the sharp edge of the metal trim on the change purse, the sound of my jacket rustling as I rushed to the cafeteria, the sting of tears in my eyes, and the overwhelming sense of shame and humiliation…the memories are fully embedded.
When I struggle to understand the very big but very real emotions my own children are experiencing, I try to remember my Santa Claus change purse, the eclipse, and Mr. Brown. Then, I am able to be just a little bit more compassionate, empathetic, and understanding.