Paul, one of the more hardened students from my Wilderness First Aid class, shrugged and wiped his eyes, his mouth twisting in what looked like heartfelt emotion. Whether it was sadness, happiness, or something else, I could not tell.

It was my first year as Leadership Director for the Northlands Job Corps Center, and as part of the leader program, students took a Wilderness First Aid course. Although a WFA is a 16-hour course, these were not typical students, and it had taken closer to 36 hours for them to reach graduation. Some had dropped out, as they had from other aspects of their lives, but most had made it, and although they seemed unfamiliar with the emotion, they were proud of that accomplishment.

It wasn’t lack of ability which caused the slow pace of the class. It was the constant mutter in their lives of poor life circumstances: poverty; terrible to nonexistent home situations; parents on drugs, dealing drugs, or in jail; and histories fettered with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Not all of my students had committed crimes, but only a scant few had not been victims of crime. They were just people, kids really, who’d been given bad breaks and were trying to work their way to something better.

What they had going for them was experience. They had dealt with crises, knew how to persevere in difficult situations, and had probably collectively seen more trauma already in their short lives than all my other SOLO students from the prior 5 years combined. In teaching this class, I had navigated some terribly short attention spans, multiple learning disabilities, and a high percentage of absences due to various crises, but I knew that these kids understood how important the medical information could be to them. When they got past the too-cool-for-this and too-uncomfortable-for-this horsing around stages, they really listened. The questions they asked were urban in nature but were deeper medically and more grounded practically than questions I hear in most classes. They were motivated to learn the material, they just had little to no experience completing anything positive for themselves. It took a great deal of patience and encouragement, and by the end of class, they had gained some trust in me and more importantly, in themselves.

We had completed the leadership course right before the center shut down for holiday break, and several of my students had nowhere to go, so they planned to celebrate the holidays by chain smoking, playing pool, and eating in the cafeteria. Since the Leadership Program was considered part of the Recreation Department, and the Recreation Department was responsible for holiday break activities, I was to spend Christmas Day at Northlands.

My co-worker Eric and I were horrified at the thought of spending Christmas on campus, but we quickly figured out that as bad as it was for us, it was that much worse for them. We had somewhere to go, and could celebrate with our families on a different day. All they would get would be whatever we provided.

Nicely, we were told we could do pretty much whatever we wanted to make it festive; we could even order special food from the cafeteria. We begged to be allowed to use the fanciest space on campus for the day, one with a fireplace. We put together a holiday menu with all the fixings, and spent hours shuttling food from the cafeteria. We asked for a Christmas tree to be delivered, and dug up several boxes of decorations from the recreation hall basement. We planned a day filled with as many festive activities and Christmas traditions we could think of: sledding, roasting chestnuts, cookie decorating, tree trimming, and reading aloud to them from A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We advertised heavily via posters in the week leading up, and reminded students every time we saw them. As was typical with this crowd, they looked pleased at being invited but did their best to hide it from everyone, each one of them an island of cool. I could see them thinking it was better not to show enthusiasm or get hopes up lest it bring disappointment. They’d been burned so often.

In our unbridled enthusiasm, Eric and I were too foolish or too naïve to realize the students would prefer to chain smoke and play pool than go sledding and feasting with us. When none of the students showed up on Christmas Day, we went looking for them in the dorm with the pool table. A few students were playing pool and others straggled in and out looking for food. We told them to come to the party and asked them to hunt down the others. After much cajoling, we had about 15 students join us. It was roughly one quarter of the students left on campus, but that was a great turnout for this crowd.

When the students arrived, the fire was crackling merrily and garlands swung from the corners. A vast amount of food was laid out on the meeting table, on a white tablecloth we had borrowed from the kitchen. Carols were playing in the background and the bare tree beckoned from a corner. There was a movie-quality hushed silence as they entered the room. A few young women inhaled sharply in surprise at the effort we had put into the event, and got right to work decorating the tree, happy to have found a way to occupy themselves in this unfamiliar scene. Other students bowed their heads against the sight, and I wondered what they were thinking. Were they embarrassed? Pleased? Touched? It seemed whatever they felt was almost too much for them, and I was afraid they would turn tail and run back to the dorm.

A few did. They grabbed as much food as they could balance on a plate and left without a word. But most stayed. They circled the table and chatted uncomfortably, looking around as though expecting someone to pop out and yell at them to get lost. Eventually everyone ate and settled in around the fireplace, arguing about which mixed tape to put in the tape deck. After a while, Eric quietly got out A Child’s Christmas in Wales, then turned off the background music and cleared his throat to tell them he was going to read a quick Christmas story. “Awww man!” we heard, and we braced ourselves for more of them to leave. No one did. Eric began.

As he read, the students went from veiled anticipation to palpable disappointment at discovering they did not understand what was happening in the story. If you have never read A Child’s Christmas in Wales, it might just seem rambling and even pointless, especially if your mind wanders at all. But if you stick with it, the rambling becomes a rhythm, more like a holiday dream, with the author relating years of childhood Christmas memories. With the right reader it can be powerfully peaceful.

Eric was the right reader. And much to my pleasure, the students stayed with it. They stayed and listened and bowed their heads, or stretched out on the carpet, full of turkey and sleepy from the fire, with head on folded arms, and there was so much emotion in the room I worried a student might crack, like a cat that has taken too much petting and can’t take any more.

And then as Eric finished reading, Paul shuddered and wiped his eyes, and I wasn’t sure if he was missing home, or wishing for a home, or just touched that we had taken time to make the day nice. Maybe he related to something in the story. Maybe no one had ever read to him, or maybe it reminded him of when someone had. It didn’t matter why he cried, and it was such a pure gesture that I got teary too, feeling grateful that Eric and I had pulled it off, and grateful too for my own family. I glanced around the room to see if anyone was going to razz Paul for caring.

No one did. They quietly stared at nothing, lost in their own worlds, until desire for dessert pulled them out of their reverie, and then desire for the familiar pulled them back to their dorms.