06 December 2016

The Christmas Pageant

Last night was the Christmas pageant at Marshall Academy, the local Christian academy. Three girls who study piano with me attend Marshall.  All three of them mentioned the upcoming pageant and asked me to attend.

To my students (and anyone else who wants to pay compliment) I am Miss Alex.  On occasions when my signature is required, I might sign either "Miss" or "Ms." Depends on my mood.  In the privacy of my mind -- is that where emotions reside? -- the Miss Alex "thing" gives me a lot of pleasure. I have felt respected, loved, feared, recognized, and protected at various times when addressed as Miss Alex.

In that way that many women begin to see their mothers in themselves, I see my mother in me most prominently in "Miss" Alex. She's fancy and proper.

So 3 students asked and Miss Alex consented to come to the Christmas pageant. It gave me pleasure to be asked. It gave me pleasure to grant a request. I felt very teacher-ly and correct.

The actual experience of attending gave me little pleasure; and what pleasure I felt was purely fabricated on my part. For example, I became aware at one point after entering the gymnasium where the play was to be staged that I was scowling. I was in public and I was acutely aware of tension along my jaw, across my forehead, and around my eyes. I did a little "Now, now, Alex. Be nice..." adjustment of my attitude and consciously rearranged my face.

I looked around the gym and spotted the mother of one of my students. In real life, I like the woman a lot. We made eye contact and she smiled and waved. I waved back. The moment was pleasurable. Wherever I've lived, running into people I know in public has always engendered a sense of arrival-at-last and belonging. I felt a brief but authentic joyfulness wash over me. The tension left my face.

I have said many times that "Holly Springs is where good ideas come to die."  Of course, as with any of the many things each of us finds ourselves repeating, it is a statement about myself.  Like the "introvert - extrovert" identity.  Myers-Briggs.  Optimist - pessimist.  Christian - not. Anything I say repeatedly, no matter the topic, any identifier I claim and pronounce, is a label I wear.


yes. I've thought about dying in Holly Springs. Not a lot but it has crossed my mind more than once. And I have thought of myself as "a good idea."


the pageant was exhausting. Mentally.  Spiritually.  Twice I was this-close to leaving.  I stayed because I wouldn't hurt my students for the world.  And they would be hurt to see Miss Alex leaving the gym before the show was over. Miss Alex is fancy and proper...and she loves kids.

Before the lights went down, while people were still arriving, I noticed not for the first time since coming to Mississippi, that the majority of people in the immediate moment and vicinity are plump. I checked myself for bigotry or unkindness and found a trace of bigotry, a smattering of mild disgust; I abandon those perspectives fairly easily these days -- after years of consciously working on it through improvisation and other strategies. It's easy now to return to a more open, non-judgmental analysis; to look at the environment with curiosity and willingness. To ask questions and say "Yes."

The lights went down and a woman (perhaps the principal?) took the mic to give welcome and make public acknowledgement of Miss Donna's hard work since Labor Day putting the show together.  She also said something like "And if you haven't got the Christmas spirit by this time, we have a wonderful show!" which made me frown again. She said some more but the PA system failed....and they fixed it...and the show began.

The curtain opens.  Stage is crowded with students standing on three-tier risers along the back of the stage and others standing downstage. I check the printed program:  appears that every student in grade 3 through 6 is in the pageant.  I scan the stage, looking for my students.  I see tiny, twitchy little bird-like children in a variety of seasonal costumes -- snowflakes and wise men and elves and ballerinas; older children, some of them clearly experiencing a physical growth spurt, fidgety or slouching in costumes connoting ski vacations and cowboys and snowmen.  Most of the kids are wearing mic/headset contraptions.

Recorded Christmas music blasts into the room.  My scowl deepens:  I'm a music teacher.  I know for a fact there are at least three pianists on that stage. I scan again.  There is no piano in the room.  The children onstage begin to sing to the recorded music.

Cacophony.  Some one or more of the kids might have been singing on key, but you could not tell from where I was sitting.

Oh the agony...  I will spare you more details.

The grandmothers of one of my students sat in front of me. When the show ended (yes, there was the obligatory standing ovation that American audiences now grant every performance by anyone anywhere...)  As I stood to leave one of them said, "Wasn't that wonderful?"  "Do you want an honest answer?" I asked her.  "Why, yes, of course," she crooned in that quintessential Southern belle voice.

"I am disappointed that after three months of work, this show is the result. I know for a fact that three of those kids are capable of much more than this production allowed them to practice or share."

Both of them were aghast and speechless. Southern social protocol offers little guidance on how to respond in the face of bold truth. Bold truth is generally perceived as rude but it was obvious to me that one of the grandmothers agreed with what I was saying though she would not have dreamed of saying such a thing herself. She recovered from her initial reaction and offered that Miss Donna was a full-time teacher who had taken on the Christmas pageant on top of other responsibilities. "I wish they'd just hire her as a music teacher. She plays at our church and she plays beautifully."

So there were at least five pianists in the room.  Over a hundred people got dressed up and drove through cold rain to sit on battered folding chairs in a gymnasium and listen to recorded music and kids singing along off key, rattling off or mumbling their spoken lines with zero stage presence while five trained musicians were in attendance?! Sorry...I said I'd spare you the details.

I really wanted to get to am "all school plays are like this...the value is in the community coming together and the kids being celebrated and having the learning experiences of performance and public speaking" sort of perspective with this but when I tried I ran into all kinds of but-but-but walls.

I was a kid once.  I was in lots of school plays and pageants. As an adult, I've attended a lot of performances and presentations by children. It just isn't true that all school plays are like this.  This bad.  I've enjoyed every school play I've ever attended.  Until this one. With some shows, a few bright stars are revealed, some kid with exceptional abilities; with other shows, the entire ensemble is amazing (shows at art magnet schools, for example, are exceptional for the array of artistic ability and imagination on display). I've seen wonderful shows in churches, gyms and vacant lots; shows with unlimited budget for spectacular sets and costumes and others where everything is made from cardboard and bed linens. Shows with an unforgettable, poignant or funny script; and others where the relevance of one event to those that precede or follow it is negligible.

I loved them all.

For me, what distinguishes those shows from what I saw last night are profound seriousness, enthusiasm and pride --- in the performers, the teachers involved and the audience members. Last night very few of the kids exhibited any of those distinctions and I believe one reason is that the production, in its development and presentation, did not offer or allow or facilitate seriousness, enthusiasm or pride in the kids.  If the kids had felt any of that, their teachers and parents and family would also have felt it. Creative activity is pervasive magic.

This morning, thinking about all the plump bodies, I believe they are bodies gone to seed.  These bodies are the end result of years and years of going-through-the-motion lifestyles that include scenes like being a kid, standing with a herd of other kids singing songs about glorifying God without actually experiencing the glory, a profoundly exhilarating bold-truth kind of experience in my memory. It's going through life consuming without the internal calorie burner of passionate enthusiasm activated. It's not weight that I find abhorrent.  It is the denial or suppression or focused extinguishing of seriousness, excellence, enthusiasm, creativity and appropriate sense of pride.

I am agnostic or atheist or something but I am moved to belief and wonder where truth or beauty present.  Denial and suppression are the antithesis to both.

Note:  This is NOT a photo from of kids at Marshall Academy.

I didn't want to be polite and laudatory last night. I wasn't feeling it.

To be honest, I haven't been feeling it generally lately. Not in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election season. I have never been one to indulge in false praise (another one of those things I'm aware I have said multiple times).  I am often willfully inept as re politeness or social etiquette.  Of late, it all seems ridiculous to me. We are a people content to shuffle our feet and try to be nice or at least be thought of as nice, living within a system that depends upon our conformity to the artifice of niceness.  Much of the time, nice is a mask for mindlessness, resignation, and fear. These are not, in my opinion, our most attractive or life-affirming human traits.

I was one of two black faces in that audience last night. I live in a system that insists I take note of that.  A system that operates so that every white person I spoke with last night was aware of my blackness first and foremost.  It's the premier pre-screen for whatever I might say to them.

Lately I'm feeling like "why not speak the truth? I'd just as soon be seen as Miss Alex, The Black Lady That Speaks Truth as Miss Alex, The Black Lady That's So Polite."

I really and truly must get out of this town.