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Today my whole work group went to a nearby elementary school to deliver presents to every child in the school. One of our probationary employees was Santa, and I was one of Santa’s helpers. Every child got a girl’s toy or a boy’s toy as appropriate to his/her gender (don’t get me started on that topic) and a goody bag with pencils, candy and other stuff. This was a project to give gifts to children who might not otherwise get to experience the getting that is Christmas.

One little girl about 7 or 8 years old was in the special education class for mildly retarded children. Attractive with even features, skinny, lank dark brown hair and eyes. Her arms stuck out of the sleeves of her too-small sweater and her tight jeans on stick-thin legs ended above the ankle; her feet sported well-worn shoes. But when she looked at you, you forgot all that. Her face brightened with the most angelic smile imaginable and when she smiled at you it was as though light was shining through her. It was the most incredible experience.

As we watched her stand in line for her turn to talk to Santa, she looked up and down and around, here and there, with her head tilted a bit to the side, as if she were listening to music none the rest of us could hear. Each time her eyes focused on something or someone, she smiled that incredible electric incandescent smile, radiant joy. Her teacher said she was mildly retarded but not a behavior problem.

She lives in the housing project across the way from the school. In another few years she’ll probably be some gang member’s main squeeze, pregnant at 16; the boys have already learned to throw gang signs and wear the clothes. These are elementary age children but not innocent for long, especially not coming from special education classes.

If she were living in India, she would be revered as one of the special ones who can hear the voice of god, to be taken care of and protected as a divine blessing on the village in human form. She would be fed and clothed and sheltered. In America, she lives in a rundown housing project and attends a class for the retarded. How is she better off?

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