A Modern Christmas Parable -- With A Happy Ending

December 23, 1990|By Mike James

Here begins a Christmas story about a thief, the homeless, a symbol of authority, the press, and a 17-year-old Howard County high school student who did the right thing and became a hero.

As Christmas tales go, it's no Charles Dickens yarn. But stories about heroes are rare. And rarer still are stories with a lesson to be learned.


The office phone rang about 2:30 in the afternoon on Dec. 11, a Tuesday and a deadline day at The Howard County Sun. Not only was it a hectic time, but it was the middle of the Christmas season.

I'd sent my Christmas cards the day before and done my first holiday shopping three days earlier. I'd been feeling a buzz of Christmas energy all day, and I grabbed the phone before anyone else.

The caller was Jason Downs, a senior at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City.

"I'm not really sure who I should talk to about this," he began slowly.

He explained that some money -- about $500 -- had been stolen from his school fund drive. The money was to be used for food and blankets that the students planned to donate to 60 homeless county families.

But with every cent stolen by a thief, who took the money from a locked closet at the school, the Dec. 21 giveaway didn't look promising.

I asked Jason if he and the other 30 students who raised the money were going to give it another shot. He didn't hesitate.

"Yes, definitely," he said. "We don't want to have to tell these families that we can't give them what we promised."

The students were going to start raising money again, but they had only 10 days.

Downs said he thought people might make contributions if they knew what had happened. A newspaper story might help, he said.

I write about crime all the time, but not the type of crime Jason was calling about. I write about people being shot, stabbed and arrested.

Most of the stuff that has my name on it isn't very Christmasy. Four days earlier I'd written about a county teacher who was arrested on a child abuse charge, the type of story that is categorized by some as "sensational" or "negative publicity." But like it or not, it's important for people to read and be aware of these kinds of stories when they involve their school and their community.

But Jason gave me that special moment in my job, when I could say to myself, "My involvement might make a difference."

I thought that with the help of something in print, Jason and his school would be sure to get their money back. And I felt very good about being able to help; it was Christmas, after all.

The problem was that Mount Hebron Principal Ed Markley didn't see it that way. When I called him to confirm the reported theft, he demanded that I tell him who told me about the incident.

I did, and explained to him that I was planning to run a short story in the next day's paper. Such a story would almost certainly help the students' fund drive, I said.

He told me that none of his students had the authority to call newspaper reporters without his permission and he intended to discuss this transgression with Jason.

I explained that Jason struck me as a sincere person who wished nothing more than to try to come up with a plan to help the homeless families.

"I'm glad you're sitting around making those kinds of decisions," said Markley. I couldn't say much else before he abruptly ended the conversation.

The sentiment was one I'd heard before. It was that a newspaper should never be contacted without careful prior discussion, if at all. In this case, it meant that even a good-hearted teen-ager should never, ever cross the lines of authority, even if talking to the newspaper would mean a chance for a handful of homeless people to enjoy some happiness at Christmas.

To me, the rule seemed harshly absolute.

Most likely, it would have prevented the newspaper from getting involved. The feeling I had from Markley was that he was suspicious of reporters. I don't think it would have made any difference if Jason had gone to him first.

Ultimately, no school rule should tell Jason whom he can and can't speak to, whether it be a homeless person, a thief or even a reporter -- one of those black-hearted grinches of unwelcome truths.

But if such a rule does exist, can there be no instance in which a student, clearly motivated by kind intentions, does not need prior approval from the principal? Don't such times warrant even the slightest overstepping of authority?

We ran a short story the next day, with quotes from Jason that he hoped the community would care enough about the homeless to make donations. It was a simple item with a simple message: A thief stole money and now the homeless may suffer if people don't come forward to help.

For its community interest value, the article ran over the Associated Press wire. Several television stations picked it up and by the evening, Jason was telling the story on the 6 o'clock news.

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