20 The Parable of the Coal

“And what did you get, Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon asked the little fourth grader in the front row. Mrs. Leaneon was worn out. She had only started class four minutes ago, and already Broody brought up the one subject that little kids found impossible to drop: Christmas presents. It was a nightmare. Every year, right after Christmas break ended, somebody would bring up presents, and then all the kids would chatter on about it all day, even in the middle of a difficult test. It was terrible, particularly for an elementary school teacher.

It took her a moment to realize that Joy hadn’t answered. “Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon prompted. The girl finally replied, looking strangely content.

“I got a big box of coal.” As Joy said this, there was a huge gasp that came from all corners of the room at once; the children clearly thought that Santa was punishing Joy. Mrs. Leaneon didn’t know what to say. Joy was the sweetest student that had ever entered Mrs. Leaneon’s classroom. Was the coal a cruel joke? And why did Joy look so happy?

“I’m sure Mr. Claus made a mistake,” was all the teacher could think to say.

Joy shook her head. “There was no mistake. I got what I asked for.” Before Mrs. Leaneon could reply, Joy started to explain: “We don’t have electricity. Our stove takes coal, but lately we haven’t been able to afford the coal that would keep the house warm.”

Mrs. Leaneon suddenly knew why Joy was always asking other students for outgrown clothing or leftover pieces from their lunches.

It felt like years had passed before the bell rang at the end of school. When Mrs. Leaneon asked Joy to stay a little longer so that she could write a note to Joy’s mother, Joy looked as if she was trying to figure out what she did wrong. The child was, in fact, shocked when Mrs. Leaneon said she was asking for permission to take Joy clothes shopping, and offered to buy her anything she wanted. “And feel free to drop by for dinner any time.”

Critique: It needs some smoother transitions. And more—more character development and arc, more dialog, more from the students, more internal thought from the teacher, more setting and sensory imagery. What you have is a nugget that needs to be expanded.

What I liked best: I really liked the clever twist of a girl asking for coal.

Publication ready: No. But with some depth and development, I think it has real potential.

1 comment:

Thoughtful Reader said...

I feel like this is just a snippet of a story, just an idea. It's a great idea, though, and for as little as has been written the characters already feel very real. I think the author could use a lot more time and space to make the story even more vivid. What if we flashed back to Mrs. Leaneon's Christmas? How she realizes now that all the trappings of her Christmas compared to Joy's are what is making her feel so empty after the holidays? More scenes to help us get to know the characters better would make the message of the story more powerful.

On a few small details, if Mrs. Leaneon doesn't want the discussion about presents to happen, why is she asking the question at the beginning of the story? And wouldn't an experienced teacher have read the signs of Joy asking for others' extra lunch snacks and at least have a hint of the family's situation already?