A Christmas story.
It all started with a phone call from Jack’s wife. She pleaded with me to take over his Grade 5/6 combined class for the last five weeks before the Christmas break as Jack had come down with such a severe case of mononucleosis that he could barely sit up in bed to drink a cup of tea.
“But Jenny,” I argued, “I’m taking a break from two exhausting years of teaching high school science and I’ve never taught elementary school in my life!”
“I know that,” she replied, “but Jack thinks you’ll be great at it and you won’t have take over his principalship; that’ll be handled by Harry, the only other male teacher on staff. He’ll be the acting principal and the liaison to the Board.”
In hindsight, I should have refused. But Jack was a friend, and I knew Harry to be good guy, so I thought, “Why not give it a shot? How hard could this be, especially for only five weeks?”
Harry came over the next day with a contract drawn up by the Board that included a Statement of Faith (with due reference to the Three Forms of Unity), and to verify my teaching certificate. I would be paid $260.
The small elementary Christian school had about 100 students with 23 in the class I was to teach. The moment I walked into the school and met the kids, I knew I was in trouble. The thing about elementary school is that the teacher must teach everything, not just a couple of classes in Biology, Chemistry and General Science as I’d taught in high school, but everything: Science, Math, Social Studies, Physical Education, Art, Music, Language Arts and, in a Christian school, Bible as well.
“You’re pretty lucky,” said Harry. “Since you’re replacing the principal you’ll have some teaching relief and won’t have to teach P.E., and the Board found someone else to teach Music because they thought that would be quite stretch for you.”
Staff room introductions were the first item of business upon arriving at the school for my first day of teaching. A formidable looking woman whom I later learned had been teaching Grade 3 for 20 years, smiled when I was introduced and said enigmatically, “Welcome to the real world of teaching, Bob.” Not a good omen.
“Also,” she continued, “we always expect a major contribution to the Christmas program from the older grades; so, it’s not too soon for you start thinking about that.”
“Okay,” I thought to myself. “If I’m going to survive the next five weeks, I need to do some considerable subject integration.”
Interacting with the kids was pretty refreshing compared to teaching jaded high school students.
“We’ll show you how teaching grades 5 and 6 works, Mr. B.”
“Alright, but I already have some ideas about that. I understand that you grade 5 and 6ers need to have a major role in the upcoming Christmas program. It’s still a pretty long time from now, but how about we work on creating a nativity play? We’ll need to research the political and geographical realities of Jesus’ times (that takes care of Bible, Social Studies and Science – the star, you know. And there will be sets to design (Art), as well as angels singing . . . who says I can’t do Music? I thought). All of this will require reading and script preparation and editing (Language Arts). The only thing I can’t think to include in this is Math, but, hey we’ve got a set of Math texts, so I’ll fit that in somewhere.”
“Hey, Mr. B.? I’ve got an idea,” ventured Jake. “Why couldn’t the play take place in modern times? Like, what would it be like if Jesus was going to be born this Christmas?”
There was an excited buzz in the classroom as the kids began to speculate what that might be like.
“Maybe Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau could pass a law that said that everyone had to go back to the town in Canada where they were born or first immigrated to for the next census. He’d say it would be good for tourism.”
“Yeah, and Mary and Joseph would go to, uh, Kamloops in an old VW bug.”
“We could make the VW out of some big cardboard boxes.”
“And Jesus could be born in the back of a garage.”
“But what about the shepherds?”
“They could be cowboys looking after their cattle. I think they have cattle in the hills around Kamloops.”
“I’ve got an idea for the three wise men. One of them could be an astronomer who saw a new star; another one could be a marine biologist who studied dolphin communication and a dolphin swims up to him and tells him that somebody special will be born in Kamloops. The third wise guy could be a geologist who finds a magnetic gem that points to the exact place Jesus will be born.”
These were clearly smart, imaginative kids. Jack had obviously done a great job teaching them.
“OK,” I said. “We need to create some teams to work on different parts of this project. Who wants to be in the set construction crew?”
Hands flew up and, before long, we had two boys taking on the VW bug and garage project while three girls volunteered to work on costuming.
“We can borrow stuff from our Moms’ closets.”
“Who is going to be the main script writer?” I asked.
A chorus of voices yelled, “Jennifer! She’s the best writer in the class.”
It’s amazing how well kids know their own, and especially their classmates’, talents.
And so, we proceeded. Day after day bits and pieces of script emerged from Jennifer and her assistants. Huge cardboard boxes were fashioned into what actually resembled a Volkswagen Beetle, and the innards of a garage. Every evening, I typed up the script on a spirit master, and every morning I ran off the required number of copies on the old mimeograph machine. I remember one small scripting crisis that occurred. Mary came to visit her boyfriend, Joseph, for coffee, and revealed to him that an angel told her she was going to have very special baby. Joseph was not impressed.
“Who are you kidding, Mary? D’you think I believe in angels? For Pete’s sake, it’s 1975.”
This bit of script troubled me; but, as I read on, the stage directions said:
Joseph walks home in a huff and suddenly there is a flash of light (remember to get Billy to bring a bright flashlight). An angel appears right in front of Joseph and says loudly:
“Yes, Joseph, there are angels! Even in 1975.”
Happily, these kids were pretty orthodox believers.
But there were clouds on the horizon. One afternoon I overheard a couple of the costume girls talking amongst themselves.
“My Dad says that it’s wrong to make dramas about the Holy Bible and especially to change the wording and stuff that’s not just like the original.”
“Yeah, and my Mom didn’t like me asking for old blankets because she said that Mary would have made sure to bring new, clean blankets for her baby.”
A few days later, Harry approached me.
“Hey, Bob, what exactly are you and your class doing for the Christmas program? I was at the Board meeting last night and a couple of Board members asked me to check up on you in my role as Acting Principal. They said they’re hearing some odd things from their kids about what’s going on.”
“Oh really, Harry? Well, I’d be happy to talk with any parent or Board member any time to discuss what’s happening in the class.”
A couple of days later I dropped by for a visit at Jack’s house after school, to see how he was coping with his illness.
“Holy cow, Bob. What are you doing over there?” he croaked feebly, still suffering the ravages of mono. “I had two Board members over here yesterday expressing concern about all sorts of unorthodox things happening in my class. They said the kids were excited about this so-called nativity play, but felt it bordered on blasphemy. They also wondered what I had been doing with the kids that made them so susceptible to this kind of unorthodox teaching. ‘Give me a break here, Bob’, I thought. ‘I don’t need this kind of pressure.’ But when I asked them if they’d spoken with you about this and they said they hadn’t, I had a coughing fit and almost passed out. They left before I regained my composure.”
“Thanks for your support, Jack. Here’s what I’m doing and what I’m going to keep doing until I hear from parents and/or the Board so I can explain the situation. My guess is that once we have a talk about this and they see how excited the kids are and how wonderfully sensitive they are to heart of the Christmas story, everything will be fine.” And I shared with him about our classroom preparations.
But everything wasn’t fine. The next morning Harry sheepishly handed me an envelope containing a brief message on the school’s official letterhead from the Chair of School Board.
Dear Mr Bruinsma,
It has come to our attention, through communications from various parents, that you are working on a Christmas play about our Lord and Saviour’s holy birth, but in a very unorthodox manner.
Last night, the Board voted unanimously to require you to immediately cease your activities in regard to this play and to teach the curriculum in a more traditional manner.
Yours in His Service,
Chair of the Board
I was devastated and angry. But I had to tell my students that we had to cease production of our wonderful nativity play immediately. There were mostly howls of disappointment and cries of, “That’s not fair!” A few minor voices said something about “messing with the Bible” not being a good thing. I told the kids how disappointed I was, and how proud I was of their work. Then I told them to take out their math books and turn to page 67, an exciting section on dividing with fractions.
The news had already reached the staff room by the time I arrived for recess coffee.
“So, now what Bob? What are your kids going to be doing for the Christmas program next Thursday night?” asked the Grade 3 teacher.
“Well, Millie,” I answered. “My heart’s not really in the Christmas program anymore. Maybe you can think of something. I’m just going to teach the standard curriculum for the rest of my time here and then be off for the Christmas holidays.”
After Christmas, when Jack was back on the job, he phoned me to tell me how sad he was about what had happened. I was curious to know what Grade 5/6 had done for the Christmas program.
“Well, Bob, the rest of the staff were pretty busy with their own preparations for the program. I didn’t make it to the program myself, but Jenny told me each student held up a big manila card with a large capital letter on it: “C” is for Christmas which is this time of the year. “H” is for holy which Jesus Christ is . . .. “
Jack couldn’t go on and I’m glad he didn’t.
About a week later my $260 cheque arrived in the mail.