The Agony and The Ecstasy of the School Christmas Concert

(Photo Pin / Ben Biddle)

(Photo Pin / Ben Biddle)

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Note: This essay was first written and broadcast some years ago, when Michael's son was 8 years old. It's now a tradition here at program to re-air it every year on the Sunday before Christmas. We hope you enjoy it!

The agony and the ecstasy of the annual school Christmas concert - or holiday festival or seasonal salute - or whatever it is called in our undifferentiated times. They combine the expectancy of a first night audience at the opera, with the self-absorption of a beauty contest.

The G-force of the ego-thrust in the auditorium is palpable. That's not just a bunch of kids up there on the rickety stage. It's MY kid up there on the rickety stage. Look at him! I mean it's amazing!Three months ago he didn't know a recorder from a nine iron! Now look at him! Mo Kaufman!!

There is a comforting inevitability about the annual Christmas concert. No, that's the wrong word. It's more a cozy familiarity. The gym is tarted up with tiny Santa Clauses, paper menorahs, Frosty the Snowman. The student artwork lines the hallways. The sound system - in use since Pearson was Prime Minister - kicks in and out. The school is heavily middle class and is ringed by BMW's, SUV's, and station wagons, family vans. All the latest in kid transport.

The parents bring out the heavy photographic artillery and jostle for position, like the most aggressive paparazzi. More video cams than Future Shop. Enough digitals to open a camera store. Moms and dads, at the back of the gym, drink killer coffee and nibble on mandarins, anxious for the morning to get under way. 

You peruse the programme to see when your little Mozart comes up, then calculate how fast you can make it to the parking lot. Every culture, every religion, every ethnicity, is salted among the audience and is reflected in the faces on the stage. The audience is as multicultural and is as multi-hued as the city itself. The principal welcomes everyone and describes how hard the children have been practicing their pieces. Everybody stands for the anthem. The kids belt it out lustily in two languages. Vigorous applause as they march off - smiling, confident, victorious. The junior master of ceremonies introduces the next act.

"And now ... the junior kindergarten will sing Frosty the Snowman, accompanied by Mr. Ellis on the piano. Thank you." Your eyes trail off from the kindergarten choir to the door. Where IS the Grade Three recorder ensemble, anyway?

Suddenly he's there. Anxiously scanning the darkened audience for a parental face. His hair sticks up in the back and his shirt is a bit too casual for such an important event. And not tucked in. But he seems ready. He sees you. Waves his recorder frantically in the air, and takes his place - top row, third from the left. The program says simply, a medley of songs. The conductor gives the upbeat, and they are off. And suddenly the notion of what it must mean to be an eight-year-old comes through with stunning clarity.

Childhood is another country. They do things differently there. It is a place of wondrous certainty. The last home of the unconditional. Children embrace the shock of the new. They don't qualify or temporize. It is a landscape wherein dwells good and bad, but mostly good. Where enthusiasm drives curiosity, powers endeavour, which fosters growth. You can read the trajectory of the energies in their faces. They start out tentative, a bit scared, and then engaged, muscular and finally triumphant.

They suck the worldly cynicism of the adults out of the hall. And you move from their extraordinary faces to the proud faces of the teachers. Who are these people, anyway, who seem as devoted to your child as you would hope to be.

They work in schools that have to run bake sales, and spring fairs to buy basketball nets and library books. And you realize ... that IF we lived in a country that had its priorities straight, there would be no falling down schools and teachers would be paid $100,000 a year to start. We grown-ups in the great big grown-up country calibrate success by what we can count: SUVs, houses, Mexican vacations. In the country of childhood, they measure success by getting through Jolly Old St. Nicholas on the recorder.

 
The medley ends. The applause is thunderous. The 30-or-so recorder virtuosi march offstage in triumph. Your son stares out into the audience, beaming. He gives the thumbs up and disappears through the exit.



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