My Christmas Chorus Experience

I was in a chorus once. Just once. A Christmas chorus in middle school.

Oh, I’d been required to sing in Christmas concerts and shows before then, in previous grades at other schools. Those don’t count. This is the only time I joined a Christmas chorus voluntarily.

Eighth grade, I believe. My final year at a private religious school I attended for a few years. Mom enrolled me there, not realizing how intolerant of just about everything the Pentecostal institution was.

I was bullied there. I had few real friends. Possibly none. A handful that showed me at least the appearance of friendship most of the time had joined this, the school’s first ever chorus. They called it a choir, but I’m pretty sure it was technically a chorus. Whatever it actually was, I joined it, after some conversation with and encouragement from Mom.

Finding more time to spend with what friends I had was one reason I volunteered. Also, how hard could it be to sing Christmas songs? I liked listening to them, after all. A free trip to nearby Washington, D.C. was likely the biggest reason, though. The desire to try something new and expand my horizons beyond the familiar might have made up the tiniest, unconscious fraction of my decision, though I doubt it.

We’d rehearse for a month or so each day after school. Then we’d head off on a bus to D.C. to take our place in a loose confederation of middle school choruses and choirs and bands from all over the area and beyond. Some kind of small band shell on The National Mall somewhere near the National Christmas Tree served as the setting.

This was one of those free, barely advertised and quickly forgotten “open to the public” holiday events. The stars of the show?Massive blocks of anonymous pre and early teen musicians of varying levels of both musical competence and dedication to show it. I hadn’t auditioned to become a part of my chorus, and looking back I doubt anyone from any of the other schools had done so to get into theirs.

Seating was provided for anyone in the public that happened by or who by some twist of fate caught wind of our presence and had nothing better to do. Truth be told, the concert was probably of interest only to the organizers, (whoever they were), the chorus masters/conductors, (skittering around in long coats and ear muffs holding clipboards and shouting last-minute commands at their distracted, pubescent flocks), and, just barely, the students themselves. And believe me, it would be too charitable to suggest that any of the students, myself included, had much interest in the other acts over the three hour presentation. After waiting an hour in a frigid D.C. evening, remaining interested in our own act became a test of our young resolve.

Within the temporary roped-off borders of this ephemeral holiday amateur fest could be found small concession stands, a few decorated trees from all over the country along with other art works befitting the season. There was also a large pit in which an actual Yule log burned. After chaperones got tired of keeping us wrangled in the audience, they established boundaries and schedules for returning and we were allowed to wander about this area.

I’d never seen an actual yule log before. Nor smelled one; I remember finding it off putting at first, but almost soothing once I got used to it. Mainly, of course, it was warmer there, and I think I’d have stood next to open vats of warmed urine, so long as they dulled the edge of the December chill.

Then there was the fact that people for thousands of years, even before Christmas, burned Yule logs just like this one. I got to thinking as I watched it, that no matter how intolerant, or mean, or dumb or intelligent or fair or unfair anybody throughout history had been, a log burned in the same basic fashion. Everyone who had ever burned a yule log, or just tended a campfire, experienced pretty much the same thing. I liked the universal nature the fire represented.

Just in case you’re thinking that I was always unusually philosophical for a boy of 13, I’ll mention that I also simply liked to watch a controlled fire burn stuff up. I think 90% of people enjoy that, don’t they? So I spent much of my time by this yule log. Even after I wandered around a bit a few times, I gravitated back toward the fire.

Our leader in this excursion was Mrs. Cline, the school music teacher. She was new that year, as I recall. Shorter even than my diminutive 13 year old self, Mrs. Cline seemed to be always either a tad nervous, or a tad distracted. Maybe both. Perhaps all music teachers are. I have no proof, but I’m also willing to wager she was actually younger than the late 40’s she appeared to be. I’d age quickly too in such a line of work, I’m sure.

I didn’t much care for her at first. Some of it was her fault. She was a little pushy at times, even through her nervousness. And she made a few decisions I thought were plain silly.

Her worst offense was our rendition of Jingle Bells, wherein she forced an entire room of kids who for their entire short lives had “ha-ha-ha’d” after the line “laughing all the way,” to stop doing so. We were to instead shout, “hey,” at the same place in the song.

I remember thinking that shouting “hey” is not laughing; it’s shouting “hey.” I probably pointed that out once or twice too often, looking back. In fairness to myself, I still think that’s a silly choice, though.

And she wasn’t the warmest person ever. I think if you work with kids, you should be, by nature, warm most of the time.

Still, much of my disdain was not her fault. It wasn’t her fault I didn’t like going to that school. It wasn’t her fault I didn’t enjoy rehearsing as much as I thought I would. And the lyrics to “The Christmas Song” were certainly not her fault. They are Mel Torme’s fault. But believe it or not I had never actually known that song before then; I learned it in that chorus from Mrs. Cline and I couldn’t stand it. Truth be told, to this day I don’t care for it, heresy though that may be. In any case, I let my dislike for the song put me on edge during days we rehearsed it.

I remember tearing it apart when I got home to Mom after practices:

“It’s stupid. Nobody uses ‘one to ninety-two’ as a range. They just crammed that in to make a cheap rhyme. Same with Eskimos, which nobody dresses like, except Eskimos.  And if ‘fire’ is two syllables, why is she making us sing ‘choir’ as one syllable? It sounds like you’ve got something in your mouth. And why is this THE Christmas Song, anyway?”

Mom didn’t know. She told me to just try to have a good time in the chorus and in D.C.

Which brings me back to our nation’s capital on that arctic evening.

For someone who was usually sad at not having many friends, I nonetheless often found the gears of circumstance rotating in such a way that I was off by myself quite a bit. Even in groups. This D.C. trip was no exception. I’m not sure how it happened; I was checking out stuff with my friends, and then, I wasn’t. If I had to guess, I’d say one of two things happened, or maybe both: 1) They ditched me because I was too square for the time being. 2) They went off to buy hot chocolate or food or something, and I opted out. I didn’t like making purchases on my own at that time for whatever reason. Seemed like a real pain in the ass. So I rarely bought things and trinkets and snacks at such events.

To the point, I was walking along by myself, looking at lights on the National Tree in the distance, and on the trees in the display areas. Air cold enough to crack into pieces. People wandering about in layers. (NOT looking like Eskimos, I might add.) The sound of Christmas songs both from the actual stage, and from off in the distance where other choirs had separated themselves from the chaos for some last bit of practice in removed portions of the mall.

Though the fragrance of the Yule log was strongest near the pit, I could pick it up in various places, along with some pine of the display trees, and even the faint whiff of the hot chocolate I didn’t want.

All at once I felt that this was the sort of Christmas moment I enjoyed most. Bustle, cold, but with an oasis of warmth nearby. Food. City. If I had gone home without singing that night, I’d have felt it was Christmastime well spent.

I was there to sing, however, and the time for doing so drew nigh. I remember casting one last look at the Yule log, (We’d be getting on the bus after we were done singing, and I’d probably not see it again), shoving my hands in my pockets, and making my way through the Christmas card imagery to the staging area.

My friends were already there, as were all the people who didn’t really like me. Mrs. Cline was there, in the increased checking and double-checking mode of the leaders with acts on deck. Purple ear muffs and long purple overcoat.

She gave us whatever last minute instructions she thought we needed. I don’t remember what they were. There weren’t many. I just remember Mrs. Cline looking concerned. Nervous. And not in her usual somewhat jittery way. I got the impression right then that she was actually nervous for us. Her strong desire to see her month of work pay off was rising to the top, and I couldn’t help but notice it.

When she got us in line in proper order to ascend the stage to our places, I hoped we’d be good. Not that I hadn’t cared about being good before that; when I do something, I do it, and I was the same back then. I was prepared to give what I could to this thing. Yet until I saw the anxiety of Mrs. Cline in the moments before we went on, I’d have been content to have just been a part of it all, regardless of how it went, free trip to D.C. and everything. Now, as the smattering of applause for the school on stage before us signaled us to prepare, I wanted us to be good in whatever way Mrs. Cline defined the term.

We performed a five song set. I don’t remember the first two, but then there was Jingle Bells, (“Hey!”), that awful The Christmas Song, and we ended with In Excelsis Deo. I’d been all business the whole time, except in the final chorus of that one. I looked away from Mrs. Cline and her gesticulating hands for a moment or two.

You see, there was actually a girl named Gloria in our group. (The only one I’ve ever met to this day.)  I, like a lot of the others, stole looks over at her as we sang her name in early rehearsals, because we were all so damned clever. Mrs. Cline had warned us after about four days to cool it with that, and I had. Still, tonight was the real deal, and I wanted to do it one more time, just for a second, because habits die hard. On the final chorus I stole a surreptitious glance at Gloria. It was a joke I’d save for myself for years to come, I thought. Now at last I share it with other people. Lucky you.

Then came our own smattering of applause, our bow, and our exit. We were done. The school holiday chorus had concluded its first ever concert. But what did Mrs. Cline think?

I saw her a few minutes later. A few of the chaperones were talking to her. From the back I saw she was nodding. A few of us students approached, and when she turned, she was still nodding, to nobody in particular. Nodding in silence but with a grin on her face. I took it as a grin of both relief and approval. If so, we’d done what she’d wanted us to do.

Then I put my hand on her shoulder. Probably a severe breech of etiquette for a 13 year old with his teacher. Not to mention quite a bit out of character for me, especially at age 13. I have friends I’ve known for years to whom I would not do this right away. Yet for that moment, it felt like the appropriate thing to do as a person. No student, no teacher. Just me, someone raised by my mother to show respect, dignity and appreciation when it was called for. It felt called for. This weary, nervous woman had accomplished something she set out to do, a feat she perhaps thought for a while was too big for her. She’d just proven to herself it wasn’t.

Besides: Christmas. Goodwill toward men. Even if they didn’t sing Jingle Bells the correct way.

“Good job, Mrs. Cline,” I said. Not because I wanted to. Had I been seen by other students I probably would have been even more ostracized than I already was. I did it because it was right.

She looked at me, and only nodded, and then turned away and headed to the front of the group. I don’t know if her silence was offense over my gesture, or due to her still processing everything. I hope the second. I think so.

We made our frozen selves back to our bus, which waited for us on the street in a row of other buses of various colors and sizes parked in a line that seemed to encircle the District.

One by one each student and now former chorus member climbed into the bus and moaned in ecstatic relief as the heated air enveloped them.

Before we pulled out, Mrs. Cline, back to regular conductor mode, congratulated us, and said a bunch of other things I don’t remember. I think we clapped. Then the bus lurched its way out into the slow-moving traffic. Already certain classmates were rolling up jackets into pillows and leaning on their windows hoping for sleep on the ride home.

Me, I watched the buses, the lights, the National Tree, and the temporary staging area through the window as we passed.

As the bus made a slight turn, and the rowdier of the students were calmed by chaperones, I caught one final glimpse of the distant, yellow flickering of the burning yule log after all.

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