Around 300 kids went to Wolflin Elementary School in Amarillo, Texas, in first through sixth grades, with up to 30 children per classroom and two classrooms per grade. Of those children, there were 299 Christians (mostly Baptists) and one Jew, me. But looking back—and I have great admiration for this—I never felt an ounce of anti-Semitism. I was just one of the gang, welcomed into my friends’ homes, having girlfriends with whom I exchanged St. Christopher medals (that was a thing then) and generally being treated the same as any other good Baptist kid.
Christmas was a special time at our school. The whole place was transformed with room decorating contests, holiday card making and, most important of all, the annual carol singing event. For weeks, each class would work on perfecting one or two Christmas carols and then, in the days preceding our vacation, the individual classes would take turns going from classroom to classroom singing their carols.
I enjoyed all this festivity as much as the next kid. What did I know? My family was not religious, though we attended our small synagogue where I went to religious school.
Each year, I helped decorate our room, made handmade Christmas cards and learned the songs. The holiday songs were uplifting and cheerful, and so I enjoyed learning them and then going around the school and belting out our selections of that year.
But in fourth grade, approaching my tenth birthday, I was finally old enough to understand the carols’ meanings, and so I realized that they weren’t exactly talking about my team. At our synagogue we were learning the Hanukkah story of how the tough-guy Maccabees booted the Romans out of the Temple. This captured my imagination and filled me with pride. So, after we started practicing the Christmas songs that year, something just didn’t feel right.
After school one day, I walked up to Mrs. Duncan, my fourth-grade homeroom teacher, and stood next to her while she applied the bright red lipstick that she always wore. I waited patiently until she looked at me.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Duncan,” I said rather meekly.
“Yes, Sloane. What is it?” she said, turning away from me to put on her coat.
I waited until she was done, and then I said, “You know I’m Jewish, right?”
“Well, no I didn’t, as a matter of fact,” she answered back.
“Well, yeah, I am. We’re Jewish, the whole family. You know we don’t really celebrate Christmas, right?”
“I thought everyone celebrated Christmas,” she responded, surprised.
“Mrs. Duncan,” I said, looking straight up at her and speaking earnestly. “Would it be okay if I didn’t do the Christmas caroling this year? It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.”
To her credit, Mrs. Duncan took a minute, sat back down in her teacher’s chair and looked straight at me.
“It must be hard on you, being a Jew here. Are there other Jewish children at Wolflin?” she asked.
“No,” I said simply. “Just me.”
“Well, Sloane,” she said rather softly. “You’re a wonderful student, just like your sister and brother before you. We’re lucky to have you here, and if you don’t want to sing those songs then that’s fine with me.”
I started to well up then and did everything I could not to cry. I never would have received such empathy at home, so this touched me, her listening to me and respecting my thoughts.
“You can just go into the alcove or the library and read while we’re singing and then join us afterward. How does that sound?” she asked.
“That’s fine,” I answered. She stood up then and placed her hand on my head, gently stroking my hair.
“We’ll see you tomorrow then, okay?” she said. I nodded and walked from the classroom.
So, from then on at Christmas time at Wolflin—while my classmates sang their holiday music—I would go to the library and read the various magazines lying on the side table while enjoying the Christmas music resonating throughout the school. I was content being a part of the Christian world in which I lived, but also having my own space.
I love and appreciate the wonderful Christmas spirit on the Peninsula, including all the music. Like appreciating a great Indian meal, I don’t understand how it all works and it isn’t mine, but it sure is delicious. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!