The following is a piece of commentary.
The following story took place yesterday afternoon, somewhere in Minnesota. The temperature was 29 degrees below death.
Nineteen-year-old Chloe parked her piece-of-junkola car outside the high-school gymnasium. The car spewed blue exhaust and purred like a 68-year-old smoker. The parking lot was encrusted with snow.
Chloe is an orphan. She was raised in foster care under hard circumstances. She was the quintessential hard-luck case you grew up with. Underprivileged. Underconfident. Quiet.
After graduating, Chloe has been living on her own in Minneapolis. It’s been difficult. She’s never lived alone before. Each month has been a financial hell. She works two jobs and makes minimum wage at both.
She was engaged, but her fiancée cheated on her. This rusted ‘92 Toyota with the duct-taped bumper represents the nicest thing she owns. And it only runs on days of the week beginning with R.
Chloe trotted across the parking lot toward her small-town school, pulling her coat tight.
Today was the annual high-school alumni lunch, a rural tradition. The hometown graduating classes return to their alma mater to participate in the Christmas hoopla and eat hotdish—whatever that is. It is a kind of old-world tradition that wouldn’t survive in, say, New York City.
The teachers fawned over Chloe like they always have.
“Oh, Chloe, we’ve missed you!” said one.
“Chloe!” said another, “you’re taller than the last time I saw you!”
“Chloe, gimme a hug.”
Chloe, Chloe, Chloe.
They love this girl. Always have. They haven’t seen her since she sat in their classrooms, diagraming sentences, solving for X, and learning more than anyone ought to know about the cosine.
After Chloe graduated, several teachers have tried to stay in touch with her. They call each week, they send cards, they even stop by her apartment sometimes.
Sadly, Chloe usually avoids them, and she never returns calls. Chloe doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. And, as I said, she is 19.
After the covered dishes were lined up, everyone ate in the cafeteria. Chloe was shoulder to shoulder with her mentors, dishing up lukewarm casseroles, turkey breast, and mucus-like cranberry sauce. It was a great day.
Everyone laughed a lot. Everyone told stories. Some wore reindeer antlers from Party City.
When lunch was over, Chloe and the teachers washed dishes until their hands looked like raisins. Then everyone played a quick game of Dirty Santa, known by the old-timers as “Yankee Swap.” Someone banged on the old upright.
Meantime, the teachers noticed Chloe wasn’t speaking to anyone, she was sitting by herself, keeping quiet.
All the teachers surrounded the young orphan. They began trying to draw her out of herself, like all educators do. Chloe didn’t offer much more than one- or two-word responses. So the teachers picked up the conversational slack.
“How has life been treating you, Chloe?” said one.
“Tell us what you’ve been up to lately,” said another.
“We love you so much, Chloe,” added a third.
“I pray for you every day, Chloe. You’re the strongest girl I know.”
And on it went.
Chloe looked like she was about to cry, but she held it in like a strong kid. Because that’s what she is. A very strong kid.
Finally, when the party was over, it was Mrs. Styles who rose from her seat and took Chloe aside. The old woman said privately, “We have something we want to show you, Chloe.”
Then she handed the girl her coat.
As if on silent cue, all teachers began putting on jackets and scarves, preparing to head outdoors into the unforgiving tundra of the North Star State. They told Chloe to follow them.
“Where are we going?” asked Chloe.
Eight Midwestern middle-aged women and one 19-year-old exited the school, tightly wrapped beneath 14 layers of cotton and alpaqua fur, and hiked through the snowy parking lot. Their feet crunched on the snowcrust. Their gentle laughs bounced across the silence.
And Chloe saw it.
It was parked in the distance. A forest green 2018 Ford Contour with a big red ribbon affixed to the hood.
Nobody said anything for a few minutes. They all just stared at Chloe, waiting for a reaction. It was a big reaction. Very big. A reaction one teacher described by saying: “Niagara Falls.”
Another teacher recalls: “I think it was the biggest gift anyone had ever given her before.”
One teacher put it this way: “This right here is why I got into education.”
On a count of three, all teachers shouted in unison. “Merry Christmas, Chloe!”
And the temperature rose 100 degrees in Minnesota.