Azur Oducayen was the last to arrive at yesterday's staff meeting.
Still holding the pen he had been using to hurriedly finish lesson plans, the eighth-grade math teacher slipped behind the bookcases and hoped Magothy River Middle School Principal Christopher Mirenzi didn't notice him.
On any other day, his strategy might have worked. He's a quiet, slight man, not much bigger than the pupils in his algebra classes. But on this day -- though he did not know it -- everyone was watching him.
Oducayen, one of 16 Filipino teachers recruited by Anne Arundel County schools this year to fill acute math and science vacancies, knew something was different about this meeting. Mirenzi, usually a serious, all-business kind of guy, was wearing a Santa Claus hat.
Then the principal said something about a drawing for gifts. Oducayen clasped his hands and hoped to win. The schools he'd taught at in the Philippines had staff Christmas parties like this, and they gave out cash. He prayed the custom was the same here. He needed some extra money to send home to his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
His wasn't the first name drawn. Nor the second. But then, the third name was called: Mr. Oducayen.
He skipped behind the bookcases and hurried to the front, where his co-workers announced his prize: a trip home to the Philippines to see his family. All of the staff had pitched in the money and frequent-flier miles.
Oducayen's jaw dropped. He covered his face with both hands and sobbed.
"I thank you from the innermost chamber of my heart," he sputtered through tears.
He had pined for his wife and daughter since Aug. 11, the day he arrived in the United States.
International phone calls were too expensive for his modest salary, so he'd settled for e-mails and letters from his wife. That worked for the first couple of months but weren't satisfying anymore.
He was anxious to see how his daughter had grown and to hear her sing. In the months he was away, his wife, Mary Beth, told him that Blaise had learned to say, "I love you, Papa."
The urge to see his family grew worse over Thanksgiving when he heard everyone talking about large, happy feasts with family.
"I told myself Thanksgiving is just for Americans, not for us Filipinos, just to pretend as if the day wasn't special," Oducayen said. "But I was lying to myself. I missed them so much."
One morning, when he heard the song, "I'll be Home for Christmas," on the radio, he turned it off bitterly, mumbling to himself, "What a stupid song."
He applied for a job at Pier 1, hoping to supplement his salary and pay for a short trip home. But his visa forbade him from doing any work other than teaching. He asked teachers whether their husbands needed help with odd jobs. They told him to be patient.
Meanwhile, teachers bought him sweaters, woolen hats and gloves, and long underwear, to prepare him for a winter he'd never experienced.
Behind the scenes over the past few weeks, they planned the bigger gift. One teacher, Suzanne Blackburn, donated 60,000 frequent-flier miles to get him as far as Tokyo. The others pitched in more than $1,500 to help pay for tickets the rest of way. Additional donations paid for a suitcase full of gifts.
"He's so sweet and so genuine, you just want to do things for him," his friend and colleague Daria Capps said. "We are a better place because he's here."
After the surprise was revealed, Mirenzi let Oducayen call his wife in the Philippines. It was nearly 10 at night there.
"I'm coming to see you at Christmas," he announced after waking her up.
She squealed and asked whether he was lying.
"I told her, 'I'm telling the truth. I'm coming home,'" he said. "I don't think she will sleep tonight."