It was a quiet residential neighborhood until half-past noon when they came from near and far in search of one last spot to park. There were parents pushing strollers, grandmas pulling grandkids in little red wagons and great-grandparents pushing walkers. From each direction they streamed and funneled through the doors like it was Carnegie Hall on opening night.
Except it was a little elementary school in the quiet town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. There were no tickets. No “Right this way sir, you’re in section C, row eight, seat five.” It was the all-school Christmas Concert in the gym, with metal chairs as scarce as parking spaces. We, until moments ago, were home workers, store clerks, executives, laborers, and fishermen, but now, elbow and shoulder together we were comrades in waiting, staring in search of little faces that light up our world.
And in they came, pint-sized bundles of life and energy clipping and clopping and trudging in high tops, flats and Uggs one class at a time, well rehearsed and pumped for singing their little hearts out…well most of them anyway. It was a highly organized cattle drive, with teachers swishing them in on one side, while their coworkers headed them off from careening off of the end of the stage on the other…
…I began writing this little story, content to capture the simple pleasures of one American school at Christmastime, played out in every town across the country. Little did I know that it was just three days before the tragic events unfolded on December 14th at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And like so many, especially for those of us who work directly with young people, I was not only shocked and saddened by the carnage in that little town, but sickened in heart and spirit. For over a week I could not bring myself to return to this piece.
Anyone who has dedicated their life and career to working with children, be they teachers, counselors, youth program directors or coaches, take seriously the monumental trust placed upon us to guide and guard from every harm the precious lives of the children in our care. It doesn’t matter if they’re six or sixteen years-old, in a classroom or bunking in a camp cabin, at the Y or on the basketball court. You know, we know, that their care and safety, no matter what, matters more than grades earned, games won or paychecks in our pockets.
And when the worst of the very worst had happened in Newtown, we cried along with our nation, but for some of us, we were there, emotionally, in every horrid moment each time we closed our eyes thereafter because that one unspeakable horror was one that we’ve trained and dedicated our lives to prevent from ever happening. And we know too that in addition to the children lost that day, the adults who also died, lived their lives to honor every child with every breath they took and would do so even again if they could.
So it was right and fitting, four days following that national tragedy, that I attended a second grandchild’s school concert in another school across the same town. The format, even the musical selections would of course be nearly the same as the first concert. That is, until the school’s principal, Amy Hartley-Matteson, welcomed everyone, then spoke carefully above younger ears and said, “after such a week,” with pause and emotion in her eyes, said that, “we were in for a special treat.” And right she was.
I found myself breathing in every step, gesture and note sung and played by every child in every class, from kindergarteners to fifth graders. I was struck by their very presence and boundless expressions of joy and happiness, and their many excited and nervous waves to their parents and grandparents in the audience. And we smiled and waved back too, beaming with joy, and for many of us, pushing that joy through the awfulness of what we knew had unfolded for people just like us…just like our children…in a state too close for comfort.
But these children here and now came to sing and play and deliver the very spirit of Christmas to all of us, and that they did. Each child in whatever note and tone that emerged with gusto and love gave us back the purpose to believe and have faith in what their tomorrow will bring. And bring it they did!
Now that, that was Christmas.
text and photos by K.Lee