Wednesday, December 17, 1997
Students teach holiday lesson

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The four spirits of Christmas present wiggled in their desks like the school kids they are.

But when they talked about sharing, they made more sense than most adults.

''You've got to help the needy. They need to know someone really cares for them.''

That was Raymond Wanamaker talking. He's 12 and the most talkative of the four spirits.

The other three are Jarissa Garcia, 12, and two 13-year-olds, Crystal Coleman and Antonio Jones.

Most kids their ages think only of three pronouns, ''I, me, mine,'' at Christmastime. But not these four. They could teach us grown-ups a lesson about giving gifts from the heart.

These seventh-graders go to Bloom Middle School in the West End, where too many people think life is a dead end.

Michael Turner is out to change that way of thinking. He's the four spirits' teacher.

The man these kids call ''Mr. Turner'' out of respect, not duty, leads a team of six teachers and 80 students. They're in four seventh-grade homerooms called the Bridge Builders.

He has high expectations for his students. But what they've done over the past two weeks with a canned-goods drive for the FreeStore-FoodBank has exceeded even what he expected.

The spirits' lead teacher worked the drive into a lesson on sharing. Collecting canned goods gave the students a hands-on experience to go with reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

''It's about that Scrooge dude,'' Raymond said of the Christmas ghost story. ''He learned that it's better to give than to receive.''

Cans everywhere

Bloom Middle School doesn't draw from the most affluent sections of town. Students come to the 82-year-old building from neighborhoods where a can of beans can be a meal.

''We're not rich,'' Raymond declared.

''We are not poor either,'' Antonio insisted with a quiet nobility.

''We're just in between,'' whispered Jarissa.

Taking that into consideration, Mr. Turner thought the drive might bring in ''50 cans. Maybe 75, tops.''

The canned-goods drive ends today. The total stands at 725.

The cans, filling plastic tubs and cardboard boxes, line the floor of the office shared by the Bridge Builders' six teachers. Their desks, bookcases, grimy old window fans and shiny new school supplies share space with cans of string beans and whole tomatoes.

Raymond brought in 135 cans by himself. He went up and down his street, West Eighth in Lower Price Hill, asking relatives to be generous.

''You have to help the homeless people at Christmas,'' he told them. ''This might be the only big dinner they get all year.''

Speaking in a soft voice, Crystal added: ''I know I'll get to eat this Christmas. We'll have chocolate and vanilla cake with red and green sprinkles on the icing. And my mama will bake sweet potato pie.

''But I'm not too sure what the homeless will eat. They need these canned goods more than we do.''

It's about helping

Throughout the canned-goods drive, the kids worked toward a goal. The homeroom with the most cans wins a pizza party.

But that's not what drove Raymond. He didn't bring in all those cans for a slice of dough smeared with tomato sauce and topped with cheese.

''It's not all about winning a contest,'' he said, while chewing on the end of his ballpoint pen. ''It's about helping unfortunate people.''

Piping up as the room turned silent, Jarissa softly declared: ''Helping others helps yourself.''

Her classmates looked at her for a moment with wrinkled noses and puzzled frowns that said, ''I don't get it.''

She returned their gazes and explained.

''Someday, we might be needy. Someone we gave these cans to might be feeling real good about themselves, might be in a good place to help us. Who knows? You can't predict the future.''

But you can try. So, allow me.

I predict that these four spirits have already received the greatest Christmas present of all. They know that the best gifts you get are the ones you give away.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

RADEL ARCHIVES