My 8-year-old son Tom stormed into the house one December afternoon. He slammed the door and kicked off his snow-covered boots.

“That stupid Sarah,” he fumed. “She says there’s no Santa Claus. She says it’s the parents who are really Santa Claus. Tell the truth now, Mom. Are you and Dad Santa?”

It appeared the inevitable question had finally come. I thought about how I might answer the question in a way that would make him understand the true meaning of Christmas.

As a teacher, I remembered a time when some of my students gave gifts in the true spirit of the holiday, and I decided to answer Tom’s question with a story.

“Tom,” I said. “Remember how the week before Christmas I bring home boxes of green envelopes from school?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Well, every year the third-grade students write letters to Santa, but those letters don’t really go to Santa. They go to me and my ninth-grade English class. The teenagers love writing the letters. Even the most reluctant writers sometimes ask for a second page of North Pole stationery. It’s great fun. Then I put a candy cane in each envelope and the third-grade teachers give the letters back before Christmas break.”

Tom looked surprised.

“Now,” I continued, “I’m going to tell you a true story about one of those letters. And when I’m done with my story, you tell me if there’s a Santa Claus.”

He didn’t say anything. So I began.

The Christmas when you were just 2 years old I had more letters than I had students to answer. So on Wednesday, two days before Christmas vacation, I went down to Study Hall to look for more elves. Cindy and Tanya, two 11th-graders, quickly volunteered. So I gave them some letters and went back to teach my class. A short time later I was standing at the blackboard, chalk in hand, when Cindy and Tanya burst through the door.

“Mrs. Eret, you have to read this letter,” pleaded Cindy.

Here is what it said:

Dear Santa,

It isn’t going to be a very good Christmas this year because my Dad left. My Mom says that we don’t have any money to buy presents. I don’t want anything for myself, but it would be really sad if my little brother didn’t get any presents. He is only five. He likes Hot Wheels.

Love, [name withheld, let’s call her Angel]

P.S. I like Barbies.

I tried to keep my professional demeanor, but I blinked back tears.

“Mrs. Eret, isn’t that sad?”

I agreed and sent them back to Study Hall. I needed to get my class back to work.

I resolved to go shopping after school, but in the chaos of the busy evening my good intentions were forgotten. Driving to school the next morning I remembered Angel.

While unlocking my classroom door I was greeted by Cindy and Tanya, who were in high spirits. They hadn’t forgotten. In fact, they had gone shopping and purchased presents for Angel and her brother. They told me they would wrap the presents and bring them the next day. That way I could bring them to the elementary school before break. I thanked them out loud on Angel’s behalf and silently on my own behalf. I no longer needed to dash to Target that night.

The next day was Friday, the last day before Christmas vacation. I planned to drop off the letters and Angel’s presents during my preparation period, but Cindy and Tanya weren’t in school. I mumbled to myself about irresponsible teenagers. How would I ever find time to run to the store? I wanted to call Cindy and ask what happened, but I had to teach three classes in a row, quickly drive the letters over to the elementary school, and return to the high school for my next class. Fortunately, I got a call during third period. It was Cindy. I could hear her sobbing on the other end.

“Mrs. Eret,” she said. “My dad’s car wouldn’t start this morning and I have no way of getting to school. I’ve got the presents wrapped and everything. What am I going to do?”

I told her I couldn’t pick up the presents until after school. My last class was over at 2:30 and the third-graders went home at 3:30. If all went right, we would make it.

I left right after school and headed for Cindy’s house, trying to follow her directions. I knew she lived in a trailer court, but there were a number of trailer courts in the area. Which trailer court? On my third drive through a maze of streets I finally found Cindy’s home. The door was open and Cindy, presents in hand, stood framed in the doorway. It was well after 3 p.m.

I used the phone at Cindy’s to call the school. I started to explain to the secretary that we had presents, but I couldn’t finish. She interrupted me with “Oh, for Angel!” and put me through to the principal.

“You just come,” said Mr. Larson in a gruff voice. “I’ll hold the buses if I have to!”

As I turned to leave, Cindy touched my sleeve.

“Can I come with you?” She asked.

“Hop in.”

The buses were lined up when we arrived, hiding the front of the school in a thick cloud of exhaust. I glanced at my watch. 3:27.

“Do you think it would be OK if I came in?” Cindy asked. “I’d stay out of the way and Angel wouldn’t see me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We’ve got to hurry.”

The secretary and principal were waiting for us, and Angel was called to the office. The principal took his position in the hallway holding the presents behind his back. Then we all stood and watched as a tiny girl advanced. This waif of a girl had none of the usual merriment of the day before Christmas vacation. She approached the office with apprehension.

“Angel, did some letters from Santa come to your classroom?” asked the principal.

Angel solemnly nodded.

“Well, we found these presents where Santa’s sleigh had been, and they have you and your brother’s names on them.”

Angel took the presents and stared down at them, silently turning them over and over in her hands.

“Merry Christmas, Angel.”

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Larson,” she replied. She turned and walked back down the hall, continuing to turn the presents over and over in her hands.

For me the mad rush to Christmas stopped. Time stood still. We became figurines in a Christmas scene. A miniature girl. A principal in a navy blue suit. A school secretary with pen in hand. And then Cindy and me, watching from a distance.

The dismissal bell rang and the spell was broken.

Cindy and I drove back to her house in silence. For the first time in days I had time to think. I remembered that Cindy and Tanya had hard lives. They both lived in single-parent families that were struggling. Any money they had came from after-school jobs. No designer clothes. No new cars. No savings for college. But these girls had learned love in their families. These girls didn’t have a lot, but they were willing to share with someone less fortunate.

We stopped in front of Cindy’s house and I turned to say goodbye. I reached out and touched her arm.

“Cindy,” I said, “that was a really kind thing you did.”

“Well,” Cindy replied, “I remember when my mom and dad split up. It was right before Christmas and we didn’t even know if we would get to see my little brother. I know just how Angel felt.”

She smiled and got out of the car.

“Cindy, you have a wonderful Christmas,” I said. I would have liked to say more, but I couldn’t trust my voice.

I started driving home in the fading light when suddenly it began to snow, the flakes falling like grace upon us all.

“So Tom,” I said, “what do you think? Is there a Santa?”

There was a long pause.

“There must be,” he finally said. “After all, Angel got those presents.”

Marlee J. Eret retired in 2015 after 40 years of teaching. She is currently working on a book about her career.