As teachers, we recognize that some of our students will not have the happy, gift-filled holidays we would wish for them. We acknowledge that while we are going to enjoy two weeks of [probably] getting sick as the semester catches up with us, giving us an excuse for staying in bed all day watching Netflix and reading books, “our kids” (as we all call them) might be anywhere from Hawaii to homeless for the holidays.

As a teacher in detention, the holidays are, quite frankly, sad. Not bittersweet, just sad. Each time the cops arrive to take them to court, they leave with the hope that the judge will let them go home for Christmas. After the holidays, our population will drop significantly – our 31 bed facility will probably only have 10-15 residents. But right now, we’ve been hovering around 30, with emergency releases and transfers almost daily. We are filled to the brim (and overflowing) with kids who finally got caught, just in time for Christmas. They come back from court with more tears than normal, more shutting down and shutting out, as they face the reality that the most wonderful time of the year will be spent surrounded by cinderblock.

And still, we teach. We try to be fun, innovative, creative and engaging now more than ever; to give them that little extra love and support so they feel a little less alone. Last year, we spent the week on letter-writing, thinking that they would appreciate the opportunity to craft intentional letters and cards to send to their families for the holidays.

Even the best of intentions get shred to bits in detention.

This year, I turned to Dickens, hoping that the themes of his holiday classic would beget meaningful (and therapeutic) conversations. He didn’t let me down.

In Stave 4, we read through the theme of fear & suffering, and discussed whether Scrooge changing out of fear of death would make his change of heart less authentic and meaningful. My students decided he needed to pursue change because it’s the right thing and he wants it, not because “he don’t wanna be chained by all his mistakes and fears that life bein’ helpless as a ghost.”

Today, we read Stave 5, discussing the realities of Scrooge’s change of heart and how he had previously “deserved to get a whole stockin’ full of coal.”

Then a student shared an unexpected anecdote (as often happens with my sweet, filter-less students)

“Miss, you know what? When I was 11 and just got home a couple days before Christmas [from another facility] my mom said I had a present under the tree. I spent all week looking at it, all excited, you know? Cuz it was Christmas and I didn’t think she’d get me a present. Well, anyway, I open it on Christmas and it’s a box full of coal. She got me coal.”

“Oh my goodness. I am so sorry, that is awful.”

“It’s okay Miss. That’s just how she is. She did it two more times since then, too.”


Coal. Home from lock-up just in time for the holidays, and his present is coal.

They hold out hope each day that they will get to go home, or at least be visited by loved ones during the season; and are – more times than not – completely disappointed. Fear and Suffering are themes of their life, more familiar and tangible to them than empathy and comfort. Everyone expects either failure, or a grandiose change of heart, one that imitates Scrooge’s radical transformation. But at least Ebenezer had the supernatural on his side. If these are the homes they long for, homes where coal is under the Christmas tree, and hope is a trap, how are we surprised that the system swallows them up faster than Santa downs milk and cookies?

One thought on “Coal.

  1. Hello! This is a moving post, and I am glad to have found it with the help of Susan in the MSU College of Ed.

    I would love to hear from you, and to know your full name if you don’t mind sharing it via email. Susan simply gave me your first name.

    You can email me at mowry at msu dot edu.

    Ruth Mowry


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