Monday, January 17, 2011

Truths, Realties, and Double Santa Claus Theories

My son, previously dubbed Lord Running Boy (LRB), is now a 6-year old first grader. His teacher asked to speak with Lord Wife and me after school about his behavior one day this past week, an oft-recurring theme this year, and she started off like this:
"Well...there's an incident I need to bring to your attention, and the timing might not be, kind of another shock for you. It's hard to, well, I'm not sure what your belief systems are at home, but..."
Our attention? "Another shock" and "belief systems" along with Mrs. L's ginger, reluctant tone shoved us onto the parental Def-Con 4 footing, a place from whence the mind rushes to worst-case scenarios. Did he start a fight? Is a window broken, or a taboo? Did he tell his classmates America is running out of gasoline and their parents are going to starve? (Some of our household commentary, lacking context, might be embroidered by an eavesdropping child.) I was thinking property damage could be involved, resigned myself to his suspension or a lawsuit and hoped one wouldn't last too long or the other cost too much.

His teacher, a professional and compassionate woman with young children of her own, explained that our boy disrupted the class by suddenly climbing up onto his group desk and proclaiming to a room chock-full of 26 kindergartners and first graders, 
"Everybody! I have an important announcement...Santa Claus is not real. Santa Claus is your mom and your dad!"
As she described it, a pregnant pause was followed by one child's plaintive denial and went from there on to general uproar. We could easily picture frowns of doubt and consternation rippling across the room, little faces shooting red, pairs of fists starting to clench. She said one boy's body tensed so rigidly for so long she was afraid he would pass out. There was crying and staring blankly into space. In response to these defenses, our son maintained his position and emphasized it: "No. Research has been done. There is evidence. Santa Claus is DEAD!" 

About this time, Mrs. L switched into damage control mode, casting LRB's conspiracy theories into doubt by parsing, as the philosopher Kierkegaard might call it, her monstrous paradox through a public school's handy diversity filters and addressing her charges: 
"Class, LRB may think Santa isn't real, but every family believes differently, and what's most important is what your own family believes."
Order was eventually restored by moral relativism and insinuating our son is a crackpot, so have a merry Wiccan/Kundalini/Bacchus Chanukah. Peace out, and fair enough. But she went on to tell us that later in the library, by the aquatic-themed books, two girls she sees as class leaders apparently berated LRB for his outburst. While she didn't hear what was said, after it was said he retreated to cry inconsolably behind a further bookshelf. I had been wondering whether to come clean with her or not, and here was my cue. It wasn't about our belief systems, or our mostly futile attempts to raise something more than a Wanting Machine brainwashed by commercials for labor-arbitraged plastic toys screwed over transistors. No, we had done our level best to preserve the Santa mythos, and he figured it out all on his own.

The previous night I'd read him a bedtime story, "A Grumpy Santa Claus." After we finished, he leveled his gaze at me and said with an air of gravity, "Uhh, know I know that Santa's fake, right?" I did know, and had observed his first seeds of doubt and the detective case he opened last Christmas with a rhetorical question: "I can't understand it. Why would Santa forget my Star Wars Lego ship after Grandma wrote it down on the letter?" (Answer: both Lord Wife and I have small businesses and families, with the obligations they entail. By the time we got to Toys R Us, they were sold out.) From there he soon progressed to time-honored logistical doubts. How, after all, is it possible to visit every house, fit down a chimney, or gain access to the disadvantaged families who live in locked condos and apartment buildings? Santa's sleigh must be rocket-powered, reindeer could never fly fast enough. And what are elves, anyway? They look more like dwarves than magic people, and not very productive ones.

I confirmed his assertion, but coolly asked how came to such a radical conclusion. As if addressing a simpleton he said, "Dad, I saw you and Mom wrapping presents on Christmas Eve." Sometimes a Teaching Moment is subtle, and sometimes it beats you on the head like a five-pound salami. I explained that while Santa isn't "real," it's not that simple, either. First, a long time ago in Amsterdam there was a real man named Santa Claus who became famous for giving presents and candy to children, especially to poor children, and who really wore a red coat. Next, his idea, of giving gifts to kids on Christmas, especially to those who were poor and good, was so powerful people wanted to keep it going. So he remains real in a sense, and taking on the role of Santa is fun. Lord Running Boy sought final clarification: "Yeah, but he died, right?" 

Some teacher. What I should have told him is truth is volatile, corrosive, people fight over it and it's a lot like nitroglycerin which when mixed carefully with sawdust stabilizes into dynamite so you can nestle lethal carrots of it under where you want to blow something up and activate it with blasting caps. It can be the most beautiful light-bringing thing or be treated as a terrible crime all at the same time. I should have said it's best to practice with small amounts first, use long fuses and take good cover because reality is a currency we must necessarily agree upon every day, and don't tell this to your class tomorrow because everybody has agreed there should be a Santa and children must believe in him until, as Mrs. L informed us, they're in 3rd grade. When truth disagrees with reality and you choose to set them close together you'll get burned by your own blast and you might even die. Furthermore, feudal aristocracies successfully convinced people the earth was flat for a thousand years, when even the Bible clearly said it's round. So think hard about that one if you're going up against Santa.
Despite his emotional injuries and those he inflicted on his classmates, we don't know that it's not for the best. At least he may have learned early what we learned much later, although to be honest we're proud of this son's ability to pursue and can take being known as the parents of the boy who ruined Christmas in easy stride. The principle I wish to delve more into for myself, and to somehow get all my sons thinking about too, is how simply seeing the truth is the easy part. The bigger trump to be pursued lies in the clever art of conflict resolution, of applying just the right myrrh-scented balm to human wounds and desires.

The next night I sent him back with a message for his classmates, that Santa is still real in some ways, and you get more presents from your parents if you believe in him. We all know how there are lies that draw smiles and truths which draw tears. He imparted the message, and I'm not sure what the right thing was to do, but he had a good day and maybe he's on his way to learning how to skillfully manipulate the credulousness of his classmates without taking too much advantage of them.


Vincent said...

A nicely told story, which means it is probably as full of half-truths and poetic licence as most anecdotes, for the dramatic effect. Which means that Santa Claus is part of a continuum of metaphors, allusions and half-truths, in which we are condemned to live till the fantasies are halted by the incontrovertible fact of death, though there are plenty to prevaricate about that, too.

I remember the inconsistencies myself - the wrapping paper used by Santa being of the same design I saw my mother buy, and so on. Still the belief held together for a bit, because I wanted it to. And that’s a habit I still haven’t quite got rid of. Who has?

MarcLord said...

Thanks for the kudos, Vincent, but the particulars told themselves in this case, and are as precise as memory allows. We've all been there in one way or another so that's the handy part of the story. I too held belief together for comity's interests, for some years after the neighboring boy showed me the pre-wrapped presents under his older brother's bed.

But I seriously wonder if it was better to support my son and how he successfully face the inconsistencies, instead of patching things over socially. Certainty is powerful, but doubt is paradoxically moreso.

What I neglected to mention is that while he a good day at school the next morning after my advice, the day after that he was sent home for acting out and melting down a few times. So these questions are honest ones, particularly to a dissident-style family.

Vincent said...

Please accept my apologies for doubting any detail of your account. What I couldn't believe was that the teacher or other children should take your son's "Emperor's New Clothes" moment at all seriously. And since the reality, or not, of Santa Claus is not part of the curriculum, I'd imagine the teacher in UK moving swiftly on without reference to the topic, only to the need for classroom discipline. She would mention it to the parent as an amusing incident the next time a scheduled parent-teacher discussion took place.

I didn't take into account the cultural differences between us. Here, we take refuge in vagueness, ambiguity, apologies, irony, self-deprecation and laughter, even when the subject may be deadly serious. In this manner, we try and avoid the confrontations which Americans seem to delight in inflaming at every opportunity.

I don't mean you, of course (he said, taking refuge in the usual things listed above, as appropriate).

Rachel said...

1) it's hard to have a smart boy, in an early (ie, young kids) education system rigged in favor of girls and their compliant well behaved selves (most of 'em, at least)
2) don't wait until Christmas Eve to wrap
4) your kid has the right kind of 'magical thinking'
5) how many years is he at this school? how long has the principal been there? is he having talks with the school counselor yet. I wanna punch ours...
6) no one brought up Saint Nicholas, huh? no Catholic kids or just bad Catholic parents/catechism. Maybe that's the real problem...
7) as hard as it is to have a smart boy, it's even harder to be a smart parent - don't bother thinking about the teacher(s) in years to come that aren't (there will be many)
8) hee hee.. standing on a desk an declaring - way to be BIG kid and be heard! at least he didn't SNAP OUT OF IT face slap his classmates. That woulda been worse, right??


MarcLord said...


no apologies required or desired, the whole thing seems bizarre to me, too, making it blogworthy. In fact I much appreciate your view from across the cultural ramparts, it provides nice feedback on (my) sanity. And I've always appreciated your feedback, especially when it's push-back.

Fortunately we'd stifled initial amusement, as it became clear the teacher viewed the matter with grave concern. Public schools are really uptight here, such that it's difficult to comprehend or convey, and on top of that deep budget cuts are being made in almost every public district.

When I went to school teachers could still get away with abuse, it seemed like they could have with murder, too, but now they live in constant fear of litigation and being laid off. The turmoil and tension level in our district, a relatively prosperous US city, is clear off the charts of my experience.

MarcLord said...


You found me. Are you San Diego Rachel, or NY State Rachel? I'll assume NY.

1) we're thankful he's able to stay in his seat for most of the day;
2) and that would mean not shopping on Christmas Eve;
3) good idea;
4) he has a vivid and free-roaming imagination, with class clown tendencies, and rarely suspects anyone's ulterior motives
5) it's an option school, new this year, and yes he's seeing a district child psych in a 1x/week "friendship group"
6) it would be surprising if any kid there knows about St. Nicholas
7) we generally expect to educate him ourselves, but staff quality at this school is quite high, having had the pick of the district (125 interview candidates per teaching slot)
8) I don't really want to think about what school "support procedures" would be if he slapped anyone. Is there a patron saint for bureaucracy?

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isabelita said...

Sigh. Having brung up a very - um - direct - boy, I can empathize.
At age 29, he still doesn't suffer fools.
But as a person who has taught every age from pre-school into high school, I wonder at a FIRST GRADE teacher who has identified "leaders" in her classroom... WTF?! They're little kids!
Well, good luck on the continuing and never-ending journey of parenthood. Just keep communicating with your kids, all will be well.

MarcLord said...


glad you brought up a direct boy who doesn't suffer fools and is smart enough to live and build a life close to you. ;-) Things have improved greatly for LRB over the past couple weeks, maybe even in a fundamental way.

Beekeepers Apprentice said...

Isabelita, that occurred to me to. Leaders? In first grade?? Cripes.

Lil'Bee turned 5 at the beginning of January, and I figure we might get another year out of the "Santa thing." This year, we wrapped a few of the "Santa" presents. We do a three-pronged christmas to save my sanity: Eve is gifts from mom & dad. Christmas morning is Santa. Christmas afternoon is reserved for the grandparents. So, she opens mom & dad presents on Eve, all is good in the world. While we're wrapping a few of the "Santa" presents, I told Mr. Bee "I bet she recognizes this wrapping paper."

Mr. Bee: "No way, she'll be too busy with her loot."

Me: "Yeah, you watch."

Sure enough, Christmas morning, she runs downstairs, looks around, and says "Why does Santa have the same wrapping paper we do?"

Mr. Bee: deer in headlights.

Me, liar to beat all liars: "Santa gets his wrapping paper at Target, just like we do. He found it's more cost effective than having elves make paper, considering the price of lumber these days."

A story she totally bought. At least this year :)

MarcLord said...

Wow, Bee. You are GOOD. But of course we knew that. ;-)