BY MAHLON MILLER
One of the most challenging projects I take on every school year is putting together the annual Christmas program. The program consists of students singing carols and each grade reciting a verse or poem, followed by one or two short skits, and a longer play.
The program is held twice, usually in the forenoon and in the evening. The forenoon performance is for the grandparents and whoever else can get away during the day, so the attendance is lighter. The evening program is usually packed. That is when all the parents, cousins, friends, and all the grandparents and people that couldn’t make it for the forenoon performance come. The evening program starts at 6:30 and lasts about an hour and a half followed by a gift exchange among students. The boys and girls draw names separately and bring the gifts that day. The program is different each year and the weeks leading up to it are filled with excitement among the students. They really look forward to the program and then when it is over they head home to enjoy a two-week Christmas break.
I thought The Not-So-Perfect Nativity Scene would be an easy play when I first read it. In the play, Miss Tate is the teacher of a one-room school in a small community. She wants to put on her annual nativity play for Christmas. At this time she wants to give some of the major roles to her lower graders. Her upper-graders are sure the play is going to be a disaster. But the lower graders are enthused, proud, nervous, and clueless. In the first scene Miss Tate is passing out the scripts and having a first read-through. This is the part that I thought would be easy because the whole scenario is so familiar: One harried teacher with a semblance of a plan and 20 impatient students who seem more concerned about having a blast than cooperating. No one waits his or her turn to speak and hardly anyone listens when spoken to. The upper graders try to boss the little ones around but they won’t take criticism from anyone but Miss Tate.
At first Miss Tate stays cheerful: “That’s all right, first read-throughs are always a little bumpy.” But her eighth grade show-off /wisecrack soon puts a panic stricken edge to her voice.
“Excuse me, Tom, I don’t think that word was in the script was it?”
Finally, when the donkey starts biting the sheep in the manger scene and the resulting fight drowns out the singing of the angel choir and turns the whole stage into chaos she despairs. “I think everyone has had quite enough for one day.”
It is also familiar, I thought, this is just the kind of scene that a hidden surveillance camera could capture at our school. We can all just be ourselves. But when we tried our first read through I was in for a surprise.
“A little bumpy” would be the understatement of the year.
Our students that normally know nothing about inside voices or staying in character stood in neat circles murmuring through their lines, stage directions and all. Remarkably, little Elmer, who is always in my face demanding attention, stayed on his chair and recited his lines very politely “Miss Tate, can I be in the cast too, please?”
Even our eighth-grade show-off wrote his lines in third person. I had to butt in and demonstrate and make them say it over twice before it started sounding like it was supposed to. We got about half way through the play when I decided that, “Everyone has had quite enough for one day.”
The next day we started at the front again and got well into the second scene, that was the worst practice. I thought we would have to throw the whole thing out and just use the short nativity scene. But the third morning went much better and we got all the way through. Every day since has gone better and yesterday we officially got rid of our script and relied totally on memory. Some parts were “a little bumpy” again but overall I thought it went pretty good. We still have three more practices before the big day and I think we should be able to get the rough spots smoothed over by then. I’ll report back next week – if my sanity is still intact!