Re-told by Rebecca White Body
This story recounts an incident that occurred when my grandmother, Naomi Kimball Harris, was about ten years old. In re-telling it, I’ve tried to weave in elements from other stories she’s told over the years in order to show how her background helped shape her personality and beliefs.
“Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
It was a ridiculous question, really, for Miss Dietz to ask her class of fourth graders. Most of them lived in the disease-ridden shanty town known as “The Incubator” and would be lucky if they got enough to eat on Christmas Day; gifts were certainly out of the question. But they knew what Miss Dietz expected to hear, and there was a constant, if unenthusiastic, stream of “Yes” responses as she went around the room. Then it was Naomi Kimball’s turn: “No.” Miss Dietz cross-examined Naomi, hoping she had misheard, but Naomi was adamant: She did NOT believe in Santa Claus. Flustered, Miss Dietz continued her progress around the room until all students had been polled. There was only one other dissident, a boy named Andrew who proved his devotion to Naomi by standing with her in her skepticism.
Unsure how to handle such unexpected rebellion, Miss Dietz informed Naomi and Andrew that they would remain in their seats until they acknowledged that they did, indeed, believe in Santa Claus. The pair sat glumly as the other children filed out at the end of the day. Miss Dietz busied herself at her desk as the children remained silently in theirs. Soon, though, Andrew began to glance nervously at the lengthening shadows of the quickly descending winter twilight. His fear of the dark proved stronger than his love for Naomi. “I believe in Santa Claus!” he blurted, and he was freed.
Naomi, however, remained silent. Miss Dietz finished her paperwork and announced that she had a teachers’ meeting. “You stay there until I get back!” she ordered as she strode out of the room.
Naomi remained alone in the swiftly darkening classroom. It would have been easy for her to run after her teacher and free herself with a simple “Yes.” But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. If there really were a Santa Claus capable of fulfilling wishes for good little children, Naomi would have more than wormy flour and moldy cold cuts to eat during the winter. She would have furniture to replace all the chairs and tables her mother had burned for heat. She would have a good and loving father instead of the charming ladies’ man who had abandoned his wife and six children. And her twin sister, Ruth, would be sitting beside her instead of lying rotten in a hastily dug grave. Naomi’s brief life had been too full of sorrow to leave room for a fairy tale like Santa Claus; she would not lie and say she believed in him.
Besides, this wasn’t the first run-in she’d had with Miss Dietz. Her mind wandered back to first grade, back in the days before the diphtheria epidemic had taken Ruth. Miss Dietz had been their teacher then, too. The two little girls had been hurtling across a rain-soaked field, trying desperately to get to the school in time to line up for Miss Dietz’s morning inspection. Ruth had tripped and fallen; when she’d gotten up, her dress had been caked with dirt. There’d been no time to go home and change, and even if there had been, there would have been no clean dress to put on. (Their mother, unable to afford a second outfit for each twin, faithfully washed their dresses each night in her old wringer washer.) The girls had no choice but to finish their journey and join the line of students waiting for Miss Dietz to check them for cleanliness. When Miss Dietz had come to Ruth, she’d exclaimed, “You shouldn’t even THINK of coming to school looking like this! Go stand in front of the class so everyone can see how dirty you are!”
Ruth had burst into tears and stumbled her way to her place of shame. Naomi couldn’t stand the injustice. Normally the shy one, she’d burst out, “But it wasn’t her fault! She was clean when she left home—she just tripped on the way to school, that’s all!”
“If you want to argue with me,” Miss Dietz had said, “you can go stand in front of the class with your sister!”
And Naomi had done so. She had marched to the front of the classroom and put her arm around her sobbing sister, and the two little girls had stood side by side.
Naomi had not yielded then, and she would not yield now. The darkness was complete, and she was afraid, but she stayed at her desk, so quiet and unmoving that Miss Dietz was startled when she flipped on the lights and saw Naomi sitting there. “Well,” she spluttered, disconcerted. “Do you believe in Santa Claus now?”
Miss Dietz realized she’d been defeated. The child’s mother would be frantic with worry by now, and leaving her in the classroom all night was out of the question. “Come on,” she said, relenting, “I’ll drive you home.”
After that night, Miss Dietz never again challenged the little girl whose integrity was stronger than her fear.
Naomi Kimball Harris was born in Philadelphia in 1919 but moved to Sewarren, New Jersey, when she was a year old. Her father abandoned his family when Naomi was four, leaving her mother to raise Naomi and four of her siblings. (Her sister Marion, eighteen years older than she, had already married and moved away.) A diphtheria epidemic struck when Naomi was eight; Naomi barely survived, but her twin sister, Ruth, died. After her mother died about ten years later, Naomi and her three brothers—John, Paul, and Jimmy—remained together for about a year. They then sold the house, divided the proceeds, and went their separate ways. Naomi went to New York to start her new life. She eventually married the doctor, Maurice Harris, for whom she worked as a secretary. The couple had two children, Ruth and Robert. Maurice served as a medic during WWII, and the family was stationed on military bases during the war. After it ended, the family moved to Milwaukee, WI. After Maurice’s death in 1965, Naomi earned her certification as a Teacher’s Aide from Alverno College. She eventually moved to Eau Claire, WI, to join her daughter Ruth, the founder of the Northwest Reading Clinic. Once in Eau Claire, Naomi began working with Head Start children as a Foster Grandparent and never stopped. In April 2012, she was honored for her thirty years of service to the program. Naomi currently lives in a beautifully renovated farmhouse called Gessner on Eau Claire’s West Side. In addition to her daughter and son, she has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with more likely on the way.