No Dolls for Christmas
As I knelt beside little Tiarra, I admired her teeny hands at work. They grasped a bottle of cascading glue. She was in the midst of assembling her very own reindeer: A piece of honey-colored construction paper that opened into a triangular-shaped mouth, a red bulbous nose, cartoony black eyes, and crooked antlers made from the tracings of Tiarra's little fingers and palms.
The classroom smelled of pencil shavings, vinyl backpacks, pomade, and crayons. But the children probably did not notice. If they smelled anything, it was the scent of a bustling workshop, overflowing with candy canes and gingerbread. They were all elves, meaning, as their AmeriCorps volunteer, I must've been the manager of the workshop. Santa had probably waddled over to the stables to feed Prancer and Dancer carrots.
“Do you like my reindeer, Ms. Stockard?” Tiarra asked. I smiled at her lopsided handiwork and her adorable inability to consistently remember how to say my name.
“Yeah, it looks great!” I touched her shoulder and she hugged me. Then Tiarra opened up the reindeer's flap of a mouth to reveal her letter to Santa Claus.
Tiarra pointed to the letter and looked up at me expectantly. “Could you check it?”
“Dear Santa,” I read aloud, “I want a DS for Christmas. Your friend, Tiarra.” Before I even bothered to point out the importance of including a “please” and “thank you,” I asked Tiarra what a DS was.
I slowly realized Tiarra meant that a DS was some kind of video game console. Had I actually paid any mind to Nintendo, I would've immediately known that. As I continued to circulate around the classroom, I discovered that many, if not most of the children, were hoping to receive a DS for Christmas. Such news shocked me. What about the toys?
I grew up wishing for good, old-fashioned physical toys with tantalizing colors, textures, and occasionally sounds and even odors. I wanted Beanie Babies, Polly Pocket, Barbies, Play-Doh, Littlest Pet Shop, Legos, My Little Pony, Cabbage Patch, Disney, and a whole spectrum of other late '80s and early to mid-90's testaments to funky, sometimes tacky product design.
I wanted toys I could cuddle, toys I could toss, toys I could mutilate (however innocently), toys that would put my sisters and me into screaming matches that soon dissolved into crying fests. In first grade, I could not care less about something that blinked and blooped on a micro screen. Could I shove a mini baby bottle into a DS' mouth? No.
A week later, I was wandering down Fifth Avenue in New York, marveling over the decadent Christmas window displays, the snaking lines of customers, and the sheer amount of gold twinkling every which way. My boyfriend, who was strolling with me that December day, had never seen Fifth Avenue. I was showing him the magic and wonder of a Christmas in a consumerist society, as epitomized by one of the busiest shopping districts in America. Not actually interested in buying anything, we didn't step into any of the stores until we hit FAO Schwarz.
Suddenly I became a child at Christmas time. If you have never visited FAO Schwarz, you have never seen a toy shop at its best. There are more toys than only the greediest of gremlins should ever aspire to own. Many of them are limited edition, handmade, or one-of-a-kind. There are giant toys, like plush elephants you can ride and pianos that require you to dance on their keyboards. There are costumed sales associates, like the “nurse” overseeing the baby doll “nursery” or “Captain America” overseeing the action figures. Elaborately decorated shelves, tables, and cases present each and every toy in all its splendor. For a glimpse of their fossils, rocks, and minerals, for example, you must walk into a cavern guarded by a carnivorous dinosaur. This is the type of toy store that sells Grace Kelly Barbies and candies so massive they would take a month to safely finish.
As I picked up boxes and inspected labels with all the eagerness of a girl a quarter of my age, I couldn't help but feel that the children in my class were removed from me in a sense I hadn't considered before. Surely we had our socio-economic and racial differences—that was why I had been placed in their classroom to begin with—but our concepts of fun were at odds, too. Though I was a young woman, a generation gap still stood between the children and me. As a child, I longed for the tangible. My mentees longed for the digital.
Nostalgically, I realized then that FAO Schwarz and toy stores like it faced a short future. But at least it would not be a dismal one. There can be no doom and gloom where there are Hello Kitty dress-up sets.