Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Assembly

In the 1960's, every public elementary school in my town held a Christmas assembly each year on the last school day before the holiday vacation.  These programs took place in the dark old basement auditoriums for the benefit our mothers, some of whom came with toddlers in tow, and an odd grandparent or two.  Fathers were usually not torn away from their important jobs for the schools’ little daytime performances and yet, the audience was always filled to capacity.  Each class was required to learn and perform a Christmas carol accompanied by Mrs. Ambrose, the soft spoken grey-haired first grade teacher who played the old piano with enthusiastic flourishes.
In third grade, I had the good fortune to have a fresh from college, hip teacher named Miss Donnelly.  She became known for her innovative method of teaching mathematics, and the shiny new car she drove to our school from Boston each morning, a blazing blue Mustang convertible. Along with the spiffy car and pioneering math instruction, Miss Donnelly was kind and we very much wanted to please our pretty young teacher who in turn had high expectations for us.
Before Christmas, Miss Donnelly told us that we would not only be singing at assembly but we would perform a short dance as well.  She paired us up randomly and I was instantly dismayed by her choice for my dance partner. Earl was much taller than I and was most commonly known for the spit balls he regularly crisscrossed across the classroom from his hollowed out Bic pens.  I had been his beneficiary once or twice and because of his stealth, even eagle-eyed Miss Donnelly had yet to catch on. I groaned inwardly.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, each class was given an hour a day to practice with Miss Ambrose at the piano. The excitement was building as our choreographer, Miss Donnelly, included several pirouettes in unison to match the lilting Christmas carol we were learning to sing. Surprisingly, Earl attended to me rather well, with his alert watchfulness over errant dance partners whose pirouettes threatened to overlap ours. I stopped fretting  until Miss Donnelly gave us our final instructions on the morning of the assembly.
We gathered together in the hallway outside the auditorium, all looking festive in the required costuming: girls in red skirts and white blouses, boys in black pants, white shirts, and green and red ties. But Miss Donnelly warned us darkly that there were to be several lit Christmas trees dotting the stage that had been empty during our rehearsals and woe betide to any pair that caused a tree to topple over during the performance.  As I clasped my icy cold hand in Earl’s, I could not imagine how the trees fit onto the old wooden stage that also included two heavy velvet stage curtains of peacock blue, which already erased a good chunk of dance space.
Soon Mrs. Ambrose called us to the stage.  Our mothers’ faces were open with anticipation as Miss Donnelly stood on the cement floor below the stage, her arms raised in directorial fashion. We began. The further along our performance got, the more we relaxed helped along by the encouraging crowd of family watching from below.  But it was then that Earl caught the heel of my shoe which caused a tumble which edged me precariously close to one of the trees upon the stage, the branch of which scrapped my shoulder.  I felt my heart skip a beat, I heard the audience gasp, and I watched the tree teeter totter in slow motion on its stand.  But just then, I felt Earl’s flat hand on the small of my back and I steadied, quickly catching up after only one missed dance step. In a moment we were back in sync, the tree stopped its terrible quaking and remained upright, and the performance was over.  I looked down at Miss Donnelly.  She was beaming up at us, eyes brimming with tears, hands clapping wildly.  The audience was on their feet with collective relief and laughter.  Our bow to them was deep and well-earned. 
When we returned to school after our long Christmas vacation week, Miss Donnelly thanked us for our performance. But then we took out our times table workbooks.  We were to begin 1965 with the number eight.  I stole a glance over to Earl.  On the top of his desk, the new Bic pens he must have received in his Christmas stocking were lined up like soldiers.


  1. You brought back memories of my 4th grade Christmas Pageant called Christmas Everywhere! I brought in the white artificial tree with tiny glass decorations. Also, I was the announcer. Keep writing...I'm eager to recollect more!