They ask, what radicalized you? It was The Mitten Tree. It appeared every year, similar to the first snap of cold. It was a Christmas tree spanning two floors in height, in the lobby of my elementary school. The intention of The Mitten Tree was to collect hats and mittens for the children of my town whose families had been identified, through some means of discovery, as not being able to otherwise afford them. Who would’ve otherwise buried their bare fists in the sleeves of a hand-me-down coat?
My Nana was a knitter. She was fast, she was perfect, and her stitches were tight and meticulous. Every year, my Nana would let us pick out skeins of yarn and she would knit us hats and mittens. She would make the cuffs of the mittens long enough to tuck into our coat sleeves, to ensure a seal against snow. They felt special to wear.
When we mentioned The Mitten Tree, my Nana said she would make some mittens and gloves for it. Thinking little of this statement, we returned to her house on a subsequent visit, only to be greeted with a garbage bag filled with freshly created hats, mittens, and gloves. I stuck my hand in the bag, feeling the sturdy stitches, and ogling the vibrant colors.
I hoisted the bag into school the following Monday, delivering it to a surprised teacher. The way The Mitten Tree earned its name was that the mittens and gloves were strewn across the branches, ornamenting the tree. I waited all day to see my Nana’s creations on the tree. By lunch, the tree was adorned, my Nana’s mittens outnumbering any other style of mitten or glove previously gracing the tree. I remember being proud.
The mittens were to be distributed over the Christmas break, along with other acts of holiday charity. Discreetly, or so it was intended.
When we returned in the new year, it was immediately obvious who had been a recipient of The Mitten Tree. Previously, contributions to The Mitten Tree had been purchased from a big-box retailer, blending in with all other winter wear. Now, as we trudged into the first recess after winter vacation, I spotted my Nana’s mittens on a selection of my peers’ hands. My Nana had unintentionally created peacocks of poverty.
Suddenly, I realized I was wearing a pair of these mittens. To classmates, it looked like I was wearing The Mitten Tree mittens. The mittens, in the color I had requested, the mittens my Nana had lovingly made for me, felt tainted. I didn’t know where, in my perception of the world, to put this indignity.
I kept my insult and outrage to myself, feeling shame for feeling shame. The silence was another feature of The Mitten Tree. I don’t remember acknowledging or being acknowledged as being part of a club I didn’t intend to join, even though it was absurdly obvious. We were all wearing identical mittens. Perhaps I am an unreliable narrator for the emphasis I have assigned these mittens. I have wrestled with the concept of charity ever since. Maybe for everyone else, all they remember is that their hands were finally warm.
Emily Johnson is a special education teacher from Massachusetts.