I worked for a few years at a fancy schmancy private school on Long Island. Part of my job was to watch the kids who got dropped off by bus before the start of the school day. The kids gathered in the library, all groggy and backpack-laden. They segregated themselves along class boundaries: preschoolers by the front desk; 2nd graders in the right hand corner, studiously drawing; 5th graders in the back room, out of the way of prying teacher eyes- a privilege bestowed upon them as a concession to their seniority.
The 4th graders occupied the tables on the left side of the room. Daily, they could be heard discussing a wide variety of subjects: sports stats, whether their dad was still sleeping on the living room couch, who was friends with whom. Once, I caught the end of a debate which left off, after a series of stoichiometric conversions, with all parties agreeing that 2 gigabytes was equivalent to 2 dollars.
Typically, I left the kids to themselves and in return they forgot I was there watching them. But once, the 4th graders roped me into a heated argument - an existential debate, if you will - on the true nature of Santa.
I knew right away that I was fucked; this is the worst possible question that a child can ask a trusted adult. Way worse than “Where do babies come from?” Answer, “Ask your parents”. Far more uncomfortable than “Is there a god?” Answer, “I don’t feel comfortable telling you what I think. It’s up to everyone to decide for themselves”. The Santa card trumps all others. You have to walk a fine line, especially with kids at that tender age when some, but not all, know what’s up. Answer incorrectly and you have lost all your adult cred. Behind door number “yes” is a wise-ass kid- often Jewish- who comes up and tells you you’re lying and he can prove it and he’s going to tell all the kids in the library; behind the “no” door are many teary-eyes and ruined Chistmases. There are angry parents behind both doors.
But it turned out that these 4th graders were- to a man- all true believers. The debate was not whether Santa was real, but whether he was dead. Those who believed he was dead argued, persuasively, that he was a spirit, which allowed him to be in many places at once. How else could he possibly make it to all the houses in one night? Only ghosts could do that, and everyone knows you have to be dead to be a ghost. Not everyone was convinced. The other kids believed Santa was still alive. They questioned the spirit-believers whether Santa had ever been alive. If he was dead, when did he die and how come we hadn’t heard about it? Where was his grave? Was Mrs. Claus alive? What about the elves? These were hard-hitting questions, but the spirit-believers held their ground. The argument came to a stalemate, and at that point my expert opinion on the matter was sought out.
Let me be blunt. When a 10-year old child asks you, plaintively, with their full heart on the line, whether Santa is dead, you better have an answer ready. There is no time for stalling. There is no room for “I’ll tell you when you’re older”. I had to think fast.
“Of course Santa isn’t dead”, I told them. “Santa can’t die. He’s magic. Duh”.
It’s possible that I dismissed the children to their classrooms early that day. I’d like to think that everyone was satisfied with that.
Merry Christmas yall. Make it magic.