For many educators, the holidays are a time of much happiness and sharing. They are a time to relax and enjoy friends and family. It is a time of too much food, many gifts, and time to revisit memories.
But it is not that way for many of our students.
When I was a principal, the week before Thanksgiving I had a fifth-grade student sent to my office whom I had never seen before for discipline issues. He had gotten in a fight with another student. He was agitated when he came into my office, and to calm him down, I said to him, “So, what are you doing next week for Thanksgiving?” He said very angrily, “I have to go to California to be with my father and his new wife, and I do not want to go! I have never met her. I don’t like her!”
I said to him, “Is this why you got in a fight?”
He said, “Yes.”
So I started asking him questions about the visit. How long was it? What did he actually know about the “new wife?” (The answer was nothing.) Did she have children? (He did not know.) The long and short of it was that he had no idea how to handle the situation, and neither his mother nor father had seemingly had a conversation with him about it.
So I said to him, “You need to have a plan. What you know is that you will be there four days and then fly home. What are your hobbies? What do you like to do?”
He liked video games. I said, “Okay, what can you pack to take with you so that you have something to do—regardless of what happens there?”
So we made a plan for his time there. I taught him some calming techniques, and I finished with this: “You will be fine because you have a plan. It may not go the way you wish it will go, or it may, but you have a plan for how to handle the situation.”
Students from poverty
For many students from extreme poverty, the holidays are a very different reality. It is often two weeks without food or with very limited food. It is not unusual that gifts or relatives are not present.
A colleague who came from extreme poverty told me this story:
She was the oldest of nine children, all with different fathers. She stayed home from school on the day the welfare check came (this was before electronic benefit transfer cards) and made sure that she got it and bought groceries before her mother came home. Her mother would disappear for periods of time, and she was expected to take care of her siblings. Often she was hungry.
Occasionally at holidays someone would show up with a turkey. If the turkey was uncooked, it was a problem because there was not always electricity or gas to use for cooking. If the turkey was cooked, they had food. Gifts? Unless someone brought them to them, there were none. When school started again and the teacher assigned the students to write “What I Got for Christmas” essays, she would make up a story. It was easier than having someone pity her.
What are the issues that some students, regardless of economic class, face at the holidays?
Missing family members. Sometimes because of death, discord, or other unavailability (distance, physical illness, prison, military deployment, work, divorce), the holidays are filled with sad memories. So when the holidays come again, the sad memories come with them. For many students, it is simply a time to get through it. Virginia Satir, who wrote extensively about human relationships, stated that when a person dies in a family, he/she often plays more of a role in the family dynamics than when he/she was alive.
Angry, violent, or sad family members. If drugs or alcohol are present, family, marital, and/or sibling disagreements may become heated and then violent. A friend of mine told me that he cannot remember one family dinner where there was not an argument or fight during his childhood and adolescence.
Shortage of gifts and/or food. If there are not gifts, there is so much guilt and shame for the adults at the inability to provide for the children the way the holiday myths are shown on TV. If gifts were purchased, and there is a great deal of indebtedness, there is worry about the bills.
What can you do to make the holidays easier?
A great sensitivity to what is not said is very important. Keep in mind that not everyone’s holidays are going to be wonderful, and that some will have holidays that are stressful and devastating. You can help by refraining from asking questions or making assignments based upon the assumption that the holidays are a great, trouble-free time for all.
Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher, and career educator. Recognized internationally for A Framework for Understanding Poverty, her foundational book and workshop, Dr. Ruby Payne has helped students and adults of all economic backgrounds achieve academic, professional, and personal success.