PICTURED: Denis O’Leary playing Santa over Zoom. Photo submitted

by David Courtland

Retired school teacher Denis O’Leary wanted to bring some normalcy to children who have been learning long distance over home computers most of this year because of the pandemic.

“The kids need to have some fun, some joy,” said O’Leary, who retired in the spring from Rio Elementary, where he taught fifth grade. “This year has been hard on them.”

So early in December O’Leary, who has played Santa Claus in classrooms for 25 years, posted an offer on Facebook to visit classes via Zoom. The response from teachers was immediate and enthusiastic.

O’Leary was booked solid for the next two weeks, up through Dec. 18 (the last day of school for Rio School District), when he virtually visited six classes. He averaged three or four classes of 20 to 25 children a day — mostly preschool and kindergarten classes, with a few first-, second- and third-grade classes. Most of the schools were local, including Rio, Oxnard, Hueneme and Oceanview elementary schools. O’Leary even managed to visit a second grade class at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Salinas.Visits all had to take place quickly, since classes were generally being held 9-11 a.m. O’Leary was left mentally worn out.

“It’s always very tiring, but it’s a thrill to see the kids,” said O’Leary. “It was a lot of fun, and it gave me Christmas cheer as well.”

He found kids were a bit more talkative on Zoom than when visiting in person, possibly because of the break from their online learning routine.

“The kids have been miserable with the pandemic and being on their computers instead of being in school,” O’Leary noted.

He used several tricks he’d learned over the years, like asking teachers their name before a visit and then using it as their class listened.

“The kids love that! They ask how I know their teacher’s name,” O’Leary said. “I tell them I knew the teacher when they were in kindergarten.”

Frequent questions were, is he the real Santa? Who is his favorite reindeer? What’s his favorite kind of cookie?

“I tell them I like all kinds of cookies, but Mrs. Claus prefers that I eat oatmeal and raisin ones, because those are healthier,” said O’Leary, who also tells them he likes all his reindeer.

Sometimes classes threw him a curve ball, such as when one class asked him to read them a story in Spanish.

“I told them I had to go to another part of my workshop to find one,” said O’Leary, who speaks Spanish.

One class with several students missing two or three teeth sang “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” to him.

He asked a four-year-old if she fought with her five-year-old sister and was told no, then heard the older sister whisper, “What about this morning?”

One girl made sure he knew she would be visiting her grandparents in Missouri during the holidays.

“That’s a concern of a lot of children, they’re afraid that I might miss them because they’re not at their normal home,” O’Leary explained.

The former Oxnard School District trustee, whose last board meeting was Dec. 16, says he hopes schools return to their normal format next year.

“I told them that next year I look forward to seeing them in person instead of on computers,” O’Leary said. “It’s always tiring, but the innocent smiles are worth it.”