The big guy shows up with a crucial lesson

December 09, 2006

The din of little tykes shrieking with delight was the first thing I heard when I walked in the door of St. James and John Catholic Elementary School yesterday morning.

The small fry were gathered in the cafeteria, located in the St. James and John basement. LaUanah King-Cassell, the principal of the school, announced the occasion: the annual breakfast held at the school where a special guest appears.

That guest would be the guy whose e-mail address might read s.claus@northpole.elf. Yes, it was Jolly St. Nick, Father Christmas, the endomorphic one himself, one Santa Claus who was about to descend from his arctic digs for his 16th straight appearance at the St. James and John Catholic Elementary School "Breakfast With Santa."

King-Cassell attended to first things first: She had the children say grace and then instructed them to eat their breakfast (waffles, sausages and eggs). Then she led them in a chant as they called for the man they had come to see.

"WE WANT SANTA! WE WANT SANTA!"

Not long after, the jolly elf appeared, moving through his throng of admirers. He shook some hands and then hoisted one little boy up in his arms. Then he did the same with two little girls. Soon he was at the front of the cafeteria.

"Merry Christmas and Ho! Ho! Ho!" he shouted. "Have you all been good little boys and girls?"

"YEESSS!" the kiddies lied in unison.

Santa didn't come alone. He brought some helpers. Five - four girls and a boy - were St. James and John pupils wearing Santa Claus hats atop their heads. Two others were decked out in Maryland corrections officer uniforms.

Lt. Eddie Armstrong and Sgt. Fleccia Taylor work at the Metropolitan Transition Center. (In linguistically simpler times this was the joint simply known as the state pen.) Armstrong has been a corrections officer for 13 years, Taylor for 12.

Eight years ago Cpl. Maurice Smith was asked to fill in for the corrections officer who regularly played Santa. Smith, a 20-year veteran who will retire this year, reprised his old role once again yesterday. MTC corrections officers have sponsored "Breakfast With Santa" for St. James and John pupils every year since 1991. Smith's an old veteran at it. Armstrong and Taylor confessed that they're rookies.

"I think it's great these kids can see corrections officers in a positive setting," said Mark Vernarelli, the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Collectively, the corrections officers do so much for the community."

That's a message that frequently gets lost, especially this year. Three 6 Mafia, the rap group that won a Best Song Academy Award for "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp," might want to think about how hard it's been in Maryland for corrections officers in 2006.

Two were killed in the line of duty. A third was stabbed. Three were tried for murder in the stomping death of an inmate at the Central Booking and Intake Facility. One was convicted, another acquitted and the third had charges dropped. Several other corrections officers who testified during the trial, it appears, either lied in court or lied in their original statements to investigators after the death of Raymond Smoot.

Those corrections officers involved in the Smoot case were the exception, not the rule.

Those who represent the rule are the ones like Smith, Armstrong and Taylor. And ones like Andrew Stritch, a 39-year veteran who's the public information officer for MTC and a caseworker there.

"Many of these kids don't have Christmas trees and such," said Stritch, who was in the group of corrections officers who started "Breakfast With Santa." The gifts Santa hands to each child - all took a turn sitting on his lap and asking what they wanted for Christmas, even the big ones - are books that are paid for courtesy of donations from MTC corrections officers.

The idea is to give needy children some Christmas cheer. And, according to Stritch, there's another motive.

"One or our goals is that none of these kids comes our way."

Yesterday all of St. James and John's pupils came the way of Santa's lap. Armstrong helped hand out the candy canes each child received. Taylor snapped pictures and helped keep the lines orderly and steered the tykes to the area where the gifts were kept. Even St. James and John faculty members appreciated the gesture from the corrections officers.

"This is my favorite day of the year," said Melissa Lehman, who teaches kindergarten. "The kids look forward to it."

Smith said it was easy dredging up the patience to have about 300 children sit on his lap and ask for presents.

"It's very rewarding," Smith said. "I can describe it in one word: fun. When you have fun, the time flies."

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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