Christmas was nearly four months away when I met my new fourth-grade class for the 1980 school year. As a second-year teacher, I was delighted with the prospect of sharing the coming year with this exceptional group of 31 eager and enthusiastic students. I did not know, however, that one of these students would help to give me the Christmas I remember best.

Amid the sea of scrubbed faces, shiny new shoes and fashionable school outfits, one boy stood out in stark contrast to the rest. Bret was a colorful sight in his bright orange plaid shirt and dingy green plaid slacks. His shoes were scuffed and worn and at least two sizes too large. The laces were frayed, held together by several large knots, strategically placed to make the ends long enough to hold the oversized shoes in place.Though Bret's fashion ensemble seemed bizarre, his facial expression was anything but comic. His dark, serious eyes peered from beneath long brush-like lashes. His gaze was slightly melancholy, yet there was a warmth in those eyes, an undeniable spark of hope. He returned my smile, and I instantly knew I had found a friend.

As the weeks passed, I learned that one of the unique things about Bret was his lifestyle. He and his family lived, basically, a pioneer existence in isolation from neighbors and friends. They made their home in a remote canyon where they had established a homestead. Their home consisted of mobile homes, tents and shacks. They managed to do without most modern conveniences. Water was obtained from a well. It was heated on a wood-burning stove. There was no electricity or telephone service. Money was a scarce commodity.

Bret seemed to be an island in so many ways; I feared he would be an outcast. I was surprised to learn that he was rather warmly accepted by the other boys and girls. Bret had a sincere, humble quality about him which seemed to endear him to others. Although he lacked the material possessions the other children enjoyed, he never seemed to feel sorry for himself, and never complained. Still, he spent much of his time alone and would often sit and gaze wistfully at the other children as they worked and played together.

Christmas approached with the usual high levels of excitement. The children's wish lists grew daily as they shared their holiday dreams. Bret remained quiet, but the enthusiasm of others was contagious. Sometimes the flicker of hope in his mysterious eyes would grow into a cozy flame, warming my heart. I would wonder what kind of Christmas Bret would have. Would there be presents for him? And how would he feel if those presents didn't come?

The pure and innocent hearts of children are always willing to share. The miniature Christmas tree on my desk was soon hidden by the generous gifts of thoughtful students. Finally, on the last day of school before the holiday break, it was time to open the gifts!

One by one, I opened gifts, gave hugs and expressed my thanks. I was moved by this outpouring of affection from these students I loved. The gifts were all as unique as their givers and it was an enjoyable time for all of us.

"Open mine next, Teacher!" was the expression repeated by student after student that day. We rejoiced in the festive atmosphere which pervaded the schoolroom. Conspicuously silent, however, was Bret. I began to wonder if, perhaps, he did not bring a gift and was feeling left out. I wanted to tell him that it didn't matter. He caught my gaze and his smile reassured me. I winked at him and continued.

The last package under the tiny tree was a small, square box with slightly soiled paper. A neatly printed gift tag attached to the box announced proudly: "Merry Christmas, From Bret."

A gift from Santa himself could not have been more exciting to me at that moment. As I opened the little box, nestled in crumpled tissue paper, was a lovely rhinestone ring. The pale green stone sparkled brightly as I slipped it on my finger for all to see. Bret grinned shyly as he came forward to accept my gratitude.

As the children left school that day, nearly flying on wings of anticipation, I couldn't help but wonder what the holiday held for Bret. I thought about buying some small gifts and leaving them for him anonymously, but I had no idea how to find the homestead. All I could do was hope and pray that he would have a happy Christmas.

I became engaged that Christmas Day and was soon preoccupied with my own good news and plans for my forthcoming marriage. It wasn't until I returned to school after the holiday break that I turned my attention back to the children.

The day after we returned to school, the children were permitted to bring one of their Christmas gifts to share with the other students. I walked around the room admiring the children's treasures. As I approached Bret, I noticed the oversized bag beneath his desk and asked him to show me his gift.

A look of pride filled his eyes as he removed from the bag a well-worn Parcheesi game. "I got two shirts, too," he said, "and some oranges and two candy canes. I had such a nice Christmas."

As I looked into his shining eyes, I finally learned something that Bret had discovered long ago. The joy of Christmas is not in what one receives, but in how one receives it. Bret knew his gifts were not expensive, or even new, but they were given with humility and love, pure and sweet, and that made all the difference.

Each time I open my little jewelry box and see the sparkling rhinestone ring, I think of Bret. He will always be a part of me and a reminder of the Christmas I remember best.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

About the author

Diane Cahoon, 33, lives in Clinton with her husband, Jay Dee Cahoon, and their four children.

She was reared in West Jordan and attended Bingham High School. She graduated in 1979 from Southern Utah State College in Cedar City with a B.A. in elementary education, after which she taught fourth grade in the Jordan School District for 2 1/2 years, until the birth of her first child.

She is a homemaker and freelance artist. She writes and illustrates stories and games for a Clinton shop.

Cahoon began writing about two years ago.

"I enjoy the challenge of trying to express myself and my feelings. I especially enjoy writing for and about children because they have so much to teach us," she says.

The Deseret News' "Christmas I Remember Best" contest is the first she has entered and today's article her first story ever selected for publication.