It was time again to prepare for the Christmas pageant. Stephanie and Karen, two of the youngest members of the faculty were assigned the task with little direction and no previous experience. They decided to have Santa and Mrs. Claus working up North with their elves preparing for the trip south this coming Christmas Eve. They needed a Santa. Just then, I walked into their LD (Learning Disabilities) lab, coming to pick up my students. Ah, Mr. OD (that’s what the kids called me), "Would you play Santa this year?" I told them I was busy this Christmas Season and besides, my 160 pound frame, hardly fit the image. They said we were all busy and they had a pillow and some stuffing for my other excuse. Reluctantly I agreed. Then, they gave me the script, little of which I remember today, the exception being that I’d be on stage with Mrs. Claus who would be played by Andre (we were an all boys school).
Practicing our lines together over the next couple of weeks, I got to know Andre. That was just the beginning. I really got to know Andre, when I later heard at school that he was in a local hospital recovering from gun shot wounds inflicted by a rival gang member. I decided to visit him after school one day. This was back in the 70’s and I didn’t know, that hospitals wouldn’t let just anyone in to visit a minor, especially a minor recovering from a gun shot wound. Eventually, they let me in past the police guard and I got to spend sometime with Mrs. Claus. Andre was eventually released to his grandparents’ care where I again had the privilege of visiting him in their home.
My final visit with Andre was a couple of years later, when I visited him in St. Charles Illinois Youth Detention Center. I don’t remember what he was there for, but I do remember him taking me around showing me his room. He had that room all to himself-he had never had his own room. He took me out to the recreation room and introduced me to the adult supervisors (guards) and he and I played a game of ping-pong together. He excitedly told me about the classes he was taking and how he was learning to swim. I never saw Andre so happy-not in school, not in the hospital and not at his grandparents’ home.
My life would never be the same. Truly, like in the gospel reading today, Andre touched me and my eyes were opened. I would never again be afraid of any "gang member". How could I be? Beneath that hard exterior there would always be a Mrs. Claus.
Dan O’Donnell is a Passionist Partner and a longtime friend of the Passionists. He lives in Chicago.