In my youth, I thought I knew what Christmas meant...that changed when I met Everett. Each year I share Everett's story with the hope that it will open your eyes to the magic Christmas is, or at least should be. I hope you will take a few minutes to read about this amazing boy, and I ask all of you to share it with your family and friends and on your social media; in this way, Everett will continue to inspire others for many years to come when I am no longer able to...and who knows...maybe it will even reach Everette!
Never Let Them See You Cry
It was Christmas and Everett the orphanage troublemaker had only the love in his heart to give away.
Everett was a regular Huck Finn. A slender towhead at the orphanage in Chicago, he looked much younger than his 12 years, but oh, how that boy could stir trouble! When some thing was missing, the first person checked was Everett! When some-thing turned up broken, who did they call on? Everett! It was hard to believe that this little boy, with ill-fitting clothes and ball cap sitting almost sideways on his head, could he be guilty of so much mischief. Just a look from those pleading blue eves caused you to wonder how another worker could throw her hands in the air and complain, “That boy ain't nothing but a thief!”
My job as a Catholic seminarian assigned to Angel Guardian Orphanage was to counsel the younger boys. Everett was hard to talk with, much less counsel. I suspect that Everett felt he had more to hide than the other boys. Everett was 10 years old when he came to the orphanage. His mother had died a few years before. His father, guilty of a major crime, had been sentenced to a long prison term. None of Everett’s other relatives wanted to take responsibility for him, and he was placed in the orphanage. When living in an orphanage one of the rules of survival is never to show your feelings. You must never let on that you hurt and, above all, never cry! Little did the boys know (or admit) that they cried out in their sleep, helpless to block out the feelings they tried so hard to hide.
At first, Everett kept a close eye on me from a distance. Whenever I was involved in a group activity, Everett watched my every move, but never seemed to participate. It wasn't long, however, before he was calling me my orphanage nickname, “Howie” and wanting to go out on outings like the other boys. These trips often consisted of going to the movies, miniature golf or to my parents’ house for hot dogs and pool. I never attempted to take Everett along, figuring that, despite my best efforts; he would end up getting us both in trouble. One day when he pleaded to go to the movies, I decided it was time for a talk.
“Everett,” I said, “I like you and all, but it scares me to take you anywhere. Let’s face it, you do get in a little bit of trouble, a little too often!”
He started to get that hurt look in his eyes, and tried to assure me he would be on his best behavior. I explained that, since our trips depended on the generosity of others, one misbehaving boy could ruin it for everyone. With tears in his eyes, he said, “Howie, I would never do anything to hurt you!”
Everett went to the movies that day, and many other days. True to his word, he never got into trouble on our outings — he waited until we got back!
His Father and His Dreams Died
Christmas was quickly approaching, and with it came a lot of anxiety. Many of the boys were to spend Christmas with volunteer families in the area and this added to the general feelings of concern. During the height of the tension and worry, news reached the orphanage about Everett’s father.
In all the time I knew him, Everett seldom talked about his father, other than to say that someday he would return and give Everett the home he wanted so badly. When he was placed in the orphanage, he had few possessions to remind him of his past life: the clothes he was wearing, a picture of his mother and a shiny silver dollar. His father had given him the coin before being taken to prison, his way of telling his son he would return. Everett treasured the coin, which he kept in an old cloth bubble-gum pouch. If he trusted you, he would show you the coin, being careful never to let it out of his hand. He would spend hours off by himself, polishing the coin before hiding it---and his feelings—safely away.
The news we got that Christmas was that Everett’s father had died. The job of telling Everett fell to a worker the kids called “Coach.” After Everett was told about his father, he was sent to the sleeping room (a large room with some 30 beds). This was done to allow Everett time to sort out his feelings in private. It would also save him the embarrassment of having the other boys see him cry.
Later in the evening, I went in to talk with him, but there wasn't much that could be said. Everett’s father and Everett’s dreams both died that night. So we sat and shared the silence and the darkness, while Everett polished his coin and cried.
Coin Beyond Price
During this Christmas season, there were rumors that the orphanage would soon be closing. I wanted this holiday to be special, as it might well be our last Christmas together.
Working one or two days a week at a paint store in Glenview, a nearby suburb, I managed to put away a few dollars and with the money purchased each boy a small pocket Bible. I never believed they would really appreciate them, and wished I could have done more to brighten that one Christmas. My fellow workers at the paint store must have sensed what was happening, because on the day before Christmas they called me aside and handed me an envelope containing over $100. This was their commission money from a mirror sale that month. They had taken a vote, and decided that I should use the money to take “my kids” out for all the pizza they could eat. After hurried thanks, I rushed to the orphanage to tell the big news.
This was also the night before the boys were to leave on their visits with the volunteer families. Everett would not be allowed to leave for fear that he might run away. We held a party that evening, and I gave each boy his gift. They gave me my present, an old transistor radio they found around the orphanage.
At some point, during our attempts at merriment, I glanced over to see Everett sitting by himself in another part of the room. He was polishing his coin. That coin must have had great significance for Everett that Christmas, the first without his father alive.
I walked across the room to talk with him. “Hi, Everett! How are you doing?” I gave him his gift. He placed his coin back in its pouch and gently unwrapped the small Bible. He looked at it for a long time and said, “Thanks, Howie, I really like it a lot.” I thought then, and would like to think now, that he really meant it.
“Howie,” he said, looking up at me, “I really wanted to get you something for Christmas, but I didn't have any money.”
I said that I understood, that I was just glad that we could spend that Christmas together. I’m sure he would rather have been somewhere else.
“I do have something else for you to see,” looking shyly up at me. Reaching into his pocket, he came out with the worn cloth pouch containing his coin. Removing the coin from its place of safety, he handed it to me. Up until that time, I had never been allowed to touch the coin, and here suddenly I had it in my hand. I remember looking at the well-worn coin, and thought of the many hours Everett spent polishing it, his most important possession.
“I really appreciate you letting me hold it, but you better put it away.” I felt as if I held in my hand the wealth of the world!
As I handed back the coin, Everett looked hurt. “Howie, you don’t understand. I want you to have it...for Christmas!” He took the coin from my hand, placed it carefully in the old pouch and gently put it in my shirt pocket. “Merry Christmas, Howie. I love you!” I thought of trying to give it back, but the look in his eyes told me different. I hugged him instead.
I was never able to say good-bye to Everett; one day when I got to the orphanage he was gone. I never saw him again. Angel Guardian Orphanage closed only a few short months after that special Christmas. The boys took their trip to Shakey’s pizza and ate not only $100 worth of pizza, but drank 15 gallons of soda provided by the manager. They went to a few more movies and, unfortunately for my parents, took a few more trips to “Howie’s house.” Then our paths parted.
I still have Everett’s coin. It’s in the same cloth pouch. Every once in a while, I take the coin from its hiding place, polish it and think of Everett. In case he’s reading this, I just want to say, “Thank you, Everett. Through this coin you've touched more lives than you could have ever known. And Everett, I love you, too!”
I didn't talk about the coin or Everett for many years after the story happened. It was too hard. One day, on a boy scout camp out, I told the story on a beautiful starlit night on the banks of the Ohio River. I have told that story at many other campfires since. It took a long time before my time at AGO, with the happy times and the sad times (the fire), reached a place in my thoughts
where it no longer hurt. What I came to realize is that all of it combined, helped me to move on to another place in my life. It molded me as a teacher and as a human. I am
very grateful for the experience.