Once upon a time, long long ago, before people knew better than to celebrate Christmas in schools, when the principal could still haul a student to the office for a whopping, a second grade teacher formed a choir.
Now this choir was made up of twenty children all under the rule of one solitary gray haired woman. The children obeyed her completely because they all knew very well what “or else” meant, and in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, they loved her with all their hearts.
Discriminatory though it was, Mrs. Cline lined up her seven-year-olds into three rows, categorizing them by shortest, middles and tallest, without a second thought of how it might scar their future with such labels.
Inevitably I got center front. I hated it.
Every day, the last hour of the day, we filed out of our classroom, a long writhing snake, one child following the next, into the gym. From the first Monday that followed Thanksgiving Thursday, to the pageant, the last day before Christmas vacation, we met.
Like earthworms in a tin can we wiggled our little bottoms onto cold folding chairs. Mrs. Cline, severe in her place of authority, waited for silence, the kind that tingled the spine. Our chatter quieted into a holy fear made real by the principal who watched us march past his office.
A big black Bible lay across the second grade teacher’s lap, the pages worn and the binding frayed. It was opened to Luke 2. When the big room became as she said, “quiet enough to hear a pin drop,” she began. We held our breath because her voice painted each scene with drama and awe.
“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1; KJV).
I still hear the inflection of “all the world,” like swirling liquid in a glass it wrapped the globe.
After each chunk of verses, because we learned the passage in groupings, hands flew up and we could ask anything we wanted about what was read.
“What’s a degree?”
“What does it mean to be taxed?”
“Did Mary’s tummy get fat?”
Every day the passage became less a bunch of strange King’s English. Words took form.
Most of us were country children, offspring of farmers, we knew a bit about sheep and stables, hay and feeding troughs. Like a canvas the scene unfolded more with each reading.
Mirage shepherds grew details of rough cloth robes, scratchy beards and headdresses. Cold night air seemed to curl about our legs. The smell of newly cut hay wafted through the gym and the choir of angels blinded us so that we squinted our eyes.
It was the pinnacle of every day, the anticipation tick-tock of the big round clock at the front of the classroom.
After each reading Mrs. Cline called us up into our neat three rows. Like the conductor of a orchestra she lifted the baton and we all fell silent, under the spell of the real Christmas story. The one with the root word Christ.
She directed us as if our spoken recitation was a symphony of song. We drilled together a child spoken procession of phrases and inflections. We raised our voices, threw out our arms, drew them back to hug our bodies and whispered with wonder.
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes…”
From hardly breathing we swelled as one voice, building and then hushing again. We rocked the baby Jesus in our arms.
I still hear it, the mounting anticipation to verse seven, “And she brought forth…,” everyone’s favorite, and then followed with a sad shaking of heads for the plight of a poor couple and a tiny babe.
“…and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (V. 7)
After a hushed swell of wonder, the baton drew a long pause of reverence.
Somewhere we’d stopped hearing the story, we’d stepped little feet into the pages, no longer outside observers but participants with long long ago.
We shivered on the hillside with the shepherds.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” (V. 9).
We cheered the announcement.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (V. 11).
The words layered into our souls from daily repetition and hours of memorization.
“And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” (V. 16).
Something happened when we recited “and the babe.” It was as predictable as Robert trying to get Patty’s attention by pulling her braids at recess. Our hearts filled with reverent love and tender faith.
It was a long long time ago.
I’m all grown. My children have their own children and traditions. But in the rare and precious times we are together for our Christmas, the all-grown up Schroeder children still clamor for a moment of quiet before we dig into the brightly wrapped packages. They look at me with expectation, a bit like I looked at Mrs. Cline.
And I begin, “And it came to pass…”
Our chorus is less refined, but I am pretty sure it would bring tears to Mrs. Cline’s eyes, the second grade teacher who multiplied wonder and truth, a gift that continues reaching far beyond a school house gym.
(The passage referred to is taken from Luke 2:1-20, KJV)