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And So This Is Christmas…

Yes, it happened…somehow I blinked and here it is just 4 days before Christmas. I know I’ve heard from some readers who were worried I had fallen off the face of the earth…or worse that I had abandoned my writing and decided I was done passing on knowledge/reflecting on life. Have no fear: neither of those is the case. Rather, I’ve been entirely consumed by the madness of report card craziness which then morphed into two weeks of non-stop work editing units in a role which is new to me this year: clinical faculty at the University of Notre Dame. (It’s still rather surreal to me to be on the other end of the ACE portfolio, but what has still remained unchanged is that ACE teachers never cease to amaze me with their dedication or inspire me with their talent.) Throw in wrapping up another semester with my construction men, a few weekend shifts at the hospital, and as any teacher knows, the madness which is December in a school setting, and I’m sure you can see why I didn’t have time to sleep or keep up with laundry…let alone write!
Of course there is another reason too which kept me from making time: I have to be honest and admit that I’ve been a passenger aboard the bitter train more often than I care to admit this holiday season. Since this blog is supposed to be full of positivity and inspiration for those of you plagued by allergies, I was hesitant to start writing for fear my negativity would shine through. But then I realized yesterday that it’s OK, and perhaps even necessary, to let the occasional bitterness shine through. I mean I’m only human, and as far as I know so is everyone reading this, so we’re all going to have our bitter moments. The important thing is how we handle them and come out better on the other side.
Let me begin by pointing out that this is my first dairy-free Christmas. (And soy and corn…but really those haven’t posed much of an issue) I’ve had 2 years to perfect my gluten-free Christmas adaptations but I never realized until this year how important dairy was to even those celebrations. I celebrated Black Friday without my traditional Peppermint Mocha latte to kick off the season. I walked through Target and gazed longingly at the green and red M&Ms, my favorite cordial cherry flavored Hershey’s kisses which grace the shelves this time of year. I attended the Egg Nog pub crawl which became an endearing tradition during my first December in Baltimore and turned down offer after offer of delectable-looking egg nog. My traditional pretzel-Hershey kiss-M&M treats have remained unmade. The packages of leftover Andes mints and Gertrude Hawk Smidgens I packed away in my holiday box have been double sealed in Ziploc bags and sit next to my door waiting for the mailman since they’re now on the contraband list in my home. And worst of all, I was gifted with not one, but two, glorious snow days last week. While everyone I spoke to that day was elbow-deep in flour and butter, engaging in a day full of holiday baking, I stood bewildered in my kitchen as I realized that in all the craziness of life, I had yet to make a plan for new gluten/casein/soy/corn-free holiday baked goods. And since I still haven’t sprung for the internet, I had no Pinterest to guide me…so I surrendered and settled for a nap on the couch instead. I’ve been handed treat bag after tin of what I’m sure are delicious culinary treats prepared with painstaking concern and love…and I’ve piled them into a box to hand out to some of  my neighbors, patients at the hospital, and of course to restock my supply of treats for the homeless who approach my window at red lights. Yes, you could say I was settled into a business class seat on the Bitterness train and I had no intention of hopping off.

I did at least decorate a tree!
Then a change came from an unlikely place, but one I should have known all along would snap me back to my enthusiastic self: the kids. They piled into school yesterday decked out in their holiday finest. They excitedly approached my desk with packages, cards, and enthusiastic Christmas wishes. And then the humility began. First, a 6th grader came in with candy canes she had kept separate from the remaining teacher gifts which contained chocolate because “I didn’t want them to get contaminated with chocolate and make you sick!”; next, a student rifled through a huge bag of treats to dig out my specially-marked bag as he commented “My mom and I made peppermint bark for all the teachers but I told her you can’t have that so yours is a pinecone candle instead!”; a 7th grader arrived and begged me to open her gift: a personalized coffee mug and a bag of treats which “Look Miss Burke!! I found these at Trader Joe’s (clearly a girl after my own heart)…they say gluten-free AND vegan!!”; another literally bounced up and down as she pointed out the certified gluten-free logo on the back of my new canister of spiced holiday tea; a parade of 8th graders arrived and I am now the proud of owner of not 1, not 2, but 3 giant boxes of Rice Chex…a cereal I mentioned a few weeks ago during a real-world application math problem (A whole paragraph framed around the problem: Miss Burke can only eat Rice Chex so she stocks up when they’re on sale. Using the attached grocery store circulars and coupons, where should Miss Burke buy cereal this week?”); And just when I thought my heart could not melt any further, one of the 6th graders whom I also taught last year came bouncing in talking a mile a minute, with no breath between her words: “MissBurke,rememberlastyearwhenImadeyouthosePeanutButterBallsbutyoucouldn’teatthembecausetheyhadricekrispies?? LOOK!!!”. And I’ll admit my eyes were dangerously close to misty when I realized she not only had gone out to buy gluten-free Rice Krispies but she and her mom had cut out the ingredient labels for everything they used and affixed them to the jar…”Just to make sure you’re safe, Miss Burke”.
I have quite the supply of these thanks to my 8th graders…
Well, if I’ve never felt simultaneously foolish and humbled, I certainly did in this moment. Here I had been Miss Borderline Grinch over the past few weeks, and these kids were spending time and energy searching for the perfect gift which I could actually enjoy. Middle school students, who all too often get a reputation for being entirely self-absorbed, addicted to technology, etc., etc., had proven themselves to be entirely selfless and so profoundly thoughtful that their teacher had been moved to near-tears. Granted there were a few of those gifts which I still can’t enjoy as corn syrup is not on their radar of Miss-Burke-averse ingredients but in a purely made-for-Hallmark-Holiday-TV special moment, I realized that the gifts themselves which literally covered the surface of my desk mean so little. What means the world to me is that my students showered me with love in a month when I needed it more than they knew. They not only kept me sane during my month of chaos and craziness, but here they were unknowingly restoring my joy in a holiday season which until today had lost much of its luster. They reminded me that Christmas is about love. It is about sharing our love with others in even the darkest of places, just as Christ’s love was sent to the earth 2000 years ago in the humblest of places. They reminded me that hot chocolate, peppermint mochas, gingerbread cookies, egg nog, and all those holiday traditions which enhance the season are simply a manifestation of the love and joy which characterizes the season. Yes, I miss those things…but what I received this week brought me so much more joy than any of those treats could have delivered. And I know without a doubt that the memory of my students’ compassion, as well as the knowledge that they know just a little bit more about how to look out for others with food restrictions, will stay with me long after the 50% off sales have cleared the Target shelves of holiday-themed M&Ms.

And of course they’ve renewed my inspiration to find those replacement holiday traditions to share with other people who might still be aboard that bitterness train. I made my own Katie-safe holiday shaped pancakes and today when I leave my shift at the hospital, I’m going to attempt my own batch of Peppermint Chocolate Chip cookies AND Coconut Milk Peppermint Mocha lattes. I’ll report back…but until then, just know that if this holiday season has been a bit troublesome for you for any reason, you are certainly not alone; but you are certainly also surrounded by joy, love, and hope. You might just have to look up from your desk long enough to see it smiling back at you 🙂
That’s right…a Katie-safe snowman pancake…complete with “snow”. I have reindeer ones too!

Who needs this…
When I have this??

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