Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Ghost from Christmas Past

"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth"
and for my sister to be out of prison garb.
It’s not unusual to wax nostalgic during the holiday season.  After all, Christmas as a child generally consists of all the fun parts of the holiday season, decorating, eating, visiting, and making and receiving gifts.  As adults, we realize the work involved in creating holiday “magic,” the hauling down of decorations from the attic, the unraveling of the light strings, the planning and shopping for the holiday feasts, and coping with irritated holiday shoppers.  What restores the holiday cheer is often the music, music that can instantly put us in front of the tree, sharing cheer with our loved ones, or singing in the school chorus.  To this day, the opening line of “We Need a Little Christmas,” brings me back to fifth grade on one particular day with the chorus teacher, Mrs. Krause.

It was the third year I was in the chorus.  That year, we “auditioned,” although I didn’t know anyone who was cut.  Without any advanced notice, those who wanted to join the chorus went one by one into an empty room with Mrs. Krause and were told to sing something.  I froze up, not knowing what to sing.  Mrs. Krause started me on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” except she was a soprano and I was … well, I suppose an alto, but “halt-o” might be a better description.  Still, the tune was identifiable, so I was “in.”  Whether through kindness or charm, being a bad singer was not reason for exclusion.

In those days, school really did feel like a second family.  It seemed like all the teachers, at least by grade level, knew all the students.  Or maybe, as I learned when I took my turn behind the desk, it was that they learned the names of the rabble-rousers first, so that when they called out that child’s name, the rest of us assumed they knew all of our names. With turnabout being fair play, the students also knew all the teachers.  I never had Mrs. Krause as a teacher, but even I knew that no one messed with her.  One kid tried, and she took him by the ear to the principal’s office.  Teachers took in loco parentis seriously back then and our parents supported them.

When I first heard the term “battle ax,” I knew immediately what it meant.  Mrs. Krause was the “Coach Beiste” of our school with an undershot jaw, a pugilist’s nose, and a chest that entered the room significantly before she did.  She always wore dresses (as did most of the teachers in the mid-70s), but because of her build, they looked homemade, usually of a “sensible” fabric, to go along with her sensible shoes.  The bottom of her slip and top of her knee-highs usually showed, probably because her chest blocked the view of anything below it.   

But Mrs. Krause was also one of the kindest teachers I knew.  There was one girl at our school who was from a seriously troubled home.  While this girl frequently acted out, I remember seeing her in quiet conversation with Mrs. Krause several times, and as I was well acquainted with the girl, I knew Mrs. Krause frequently bought her her lunch.  On cold days, Mrs. Krause left her classroom open for lunch and recess, so her students and their friends could take shelter.  Mrs. Krause also wasn’t afraid to give hugs, grabbing us with her Popeye arms and smushing us against her iron clad bosom to express thanks or to praise us for a job well done.

That one day of chorus practice, we had gone through our repertoire of traditional songs and were finishing with “We Need A Little Christmas,” one of our favorites.  We couldn’t get past the first line and we could see the growing frustration on Mrs. Krause’s face.

“Can’t you hear the difference?” she said in exasperation.  “It’s not, ‘Haul out the hooo-oooolly,” It’s, ‘Haul out the hol-ly.”

We sang it over and over again, some of us hearing the difference, others still struggling.  We muttered among ourselves, exaggerating the desired version to help those that didn’t understand until finally we all got it right.  Mrs. Krause beamed and we grinned back, continuing the song with smiles on everyone’s face.  She praised us afterwards, not just on the song, but for rehearsal that day, congratulating us on our persistence.  My friends and I laughed about how long it took for us to figure out the problem and how glad we were that we did.  Other students were doing the same as I could hear smatterings of “haul out the hol-ly” as we walked out the door.  When it came time to perform the song, we all gave a little extra effort to do “hol-ly” and Mrs. Krause proud. While I don’t think she intended for us to accent the word, her nod and wide smile said our conscientiousness was appreciated.

Whenever I hear “We Need a Little Christmas,” I always listen carefully for the “hol-ly.”  37 years later, I still smile.  My heart swells as I remember Mrs. Krause and how our chorus came together to bring a little Christmas to each other that day.

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