Starry, Starry Night and the Magic

Advent 8 On the power of story

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I was brought up in the cold, grey north where winters were dark and grim. The culture was pretty grim too, in those days. Bars were for the men and they shut at ten o’clock. Respectable children were not allowed to play out on a Sunday.

My friend told me that when she started school, it was arranged she would walk back to her grannie’s for her tea, before going home. On her second day her grannie asked her how her day had gone.

“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she ventured timidly

“Enjoy!” said her grannie sternly. “You’re not put on this earth to enjoy! We’re here to suffer and be judged!”

That about summed it up really.

So it wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I encountered the magic of light and joy in a well enacted story.

One Christmas Eve a gang of us teenagers went along on to what was known in Scotland as the Watchnight Service. We weren’t particularly religious. It must have been because one of us was the minister’s son and was under orders to go.

I had never been to anything remotely symbolic in a church before. No gilded statues or lavishly decorated altars for the United Free Church of Scotland where I had gone to Sunday school!

But, at the Watchnight Service in this strange cold church, there was silent darkness until, at midnight, the candles were lit as the words of the King James bible were read out and the old story of new life coming into the world was retold.

It was magic!

The symbolism of the midwinter feast was lived out before us. The darkest time of the year just past and the earth turning again towards the sun with the promise of renewal, survival and spring.

Even nowadays, however much killjoys try to wean us away from magic and the power of stories, we still rebelliously trail strings of pinprick lights over our hedges and around our homes. In the midst of the shopping spendfest we still fall under the spell of flickering candles and starry skies.

Somewhere underneath all the cynical commercialism still lurks the ancient desire to celebrate new life and to welcome the rebirth of light into a dark world.

And discover, in the face of all the grimness of existence, a spark of hope.

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Christmas Past

Advent 1 On being careful what you wish for….

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I have very few childhood Christmas memories. In fact I can only think of one.  Perhaps Christmas wasn’t such a big deal before modern marketing and credit cards.

After the end of World War 2 rationing went on for years, and not just food. Clothes and toys were scarce too. I can remember how careful I had to be of my two precious picture books, specially imported from Holland, my mother told me. The first new coloured children’s books printed after the war.

For the Christmas after I started school I had only one desperate wish. I longed for a doll with hair you could brush. I only had two inherited baby dolls, who rejoiced in the names of Emmeline and Dorothy, but who wouldn’t win any prizes in the glamour stakes. They were both bald.

I wanted a “china” doll with a painted face, eyelashes and opening eyes, plus the all important long golden plaits.

Such things were hard to come by, but my mother searched until she found one and on the afternoon of Christmas day I carried my prize off to my bedroom to brush her hair.

It was then that the disaster happened!  Her hair came away from her head tangled in the little hard brush.  I was distraught with guilt and panic. I hid the crime under my bed and cried. Sooner or later I knew it must be discovered.

But wonder of wonders, when my mother sought me out it was not me she was angry with. She railed against the manufacturers and shopkeepers responsible for ruining children’s Christmas. My growing doubts about Santa Claus were amply reinforced by her determination to call these mundane, non supernatural bodies to account.

At some point in the following weeks a replacement doll appeared, but I never felt the same about her.  I fell back on the secure reliability of Emmeline and Dorothy, and kept Gloria for show.

Like all my generation, I grew up knowing you couldn’t always have everything you wanted. You had to make the best of whatever came your way.

We were a bridging generation, living through the privations of war and postwar, the growing prosperity of the 60s and 70s, then onwards ever onwards into the blatant, credit-driven consumerism of the 21st century.

It’s hard to shake off that early training in the careful tending of scarce commodities.

A few years ago I stood behind a woman in the queue at our local garden centre. She had a trolley full of silver Christmas decorations.

“I fancied silver this year,” she was explaining to her companion. “We had red and tartan last year.”

I was rivetted by this revelation that there were people who actually changed their Christmas decorations. Surely these lived in a box in the loft until they rotted or broke and even then were only replaced item by item as the need arose?

There wasn’t very much pious preaching about recycling and conservation in my childhood. We simply never discarded anything that could be used or reused!

Even now the chairs at my own table are the sturdy wartime utility ones that used to stand around my parents’.

I still can’t bear to throw them away!

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Lesson 74 Teaching the World to Sing

Lesson 74 on Poems, songs and solos.

Miss Maverick’s favourite subjects were English, drama and music. It was very convenient that she worked across the activity area from Mr TopJuniors as it meant that they could pool their strengths, and sort out any issue outside their own sphere by popping across or sending a messenger to seek clarification.

There was a difficulty the year I worked with them, because the introduction of the Literacy Hour and the looming approach of Ofsted impinged on Miss Maverick’s usual way of planning and implementing her class’s literary endeavours.  In particular, it got in the way of poetry.

In all her subjects Miss Maverick chose approaches that helped the group to work together.  The children needed support to function cooperatively.  Outside school they were used to falling back on fighting and name calling as soon as any disagreement arose.  So Miss Maverick provided a range of activities that required everybody to join in.

One of these was poetry. Miss Maverick had a great selection of poems that cried out to be declaimed. I suppose you could have said she specialised in choral recitation. By the time I came to work next to her area the class knew all their favourites off by heart, as did the other groups she had taught before. Unfortunately the restrictions of the new imposed curriculum did not allow much time for this joint activity.

The solution was to take advantage of wet playtimes.  Unlike the other classes who hated wet playtimes, Miss Maverick’s and Mr TopJuniors loved them.  Everybody piled into the activity area and sat on the floor while Miss Maverick sat in the front orchestrating the performance. They would wait for her begin, start off quietly together, then work their way up to a joyful final chorus.

There was such shared enthusiasm and sheer delight in the words and rhythms, that it was no surprise to find the children were not shy to perform in other situations.  The school choir was one.  Miss Maverick organised this and they rehearsed at lunchtime. You didn’t have to show any musical talent to join.  You just had to be prepared to give up football in the school field one lunchtime a week.

Assemblies were wonderful.  Sometimes the head would say after a particularly enthusiastic rendering of a favourite song.

“My, that was great!  Shall we sing it again? And would anybody like to do a solo?”

She always had volunteers.  I used to wonder at the children who were happy to stand up in front of a crowded hall and sing alone.  These children had come into the infants barely able to put a few words together, but by the time they left they could confidently speak up in public and sing to an audience.

Before Christmas the carol rendering was a joy. Miss Maverick’s training had resulted in a school which could sing together with a moving sensitivity to the words and music. For the teachers and helpers and parents, the Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge couldn’t touch it.

One pre-Christmas morning, when the head asked for a repeat, her voice was choking.

“But, before we begin, one of you run and fetch Mrs Secretary from the office.  And tell her to bring her hanky!

Lesson 37 A White Christmas

Lesson 37 on Making a Virtue of Necessity.

Mandy’s school was in the centre of a dispiriting estate, next to a sprawling industrial development, about a mile from a junction on the M3.  All the pupils lived on the estate. All the teachers, however, lived well away from it. Most travelled in by car from the pleasanter parts of the Berkshire countryside. I was the only teacher who drove in the other direction from London.

Any hold-up on the motorway caused problems.  The pupils would arrive in school, but the teachers would be stuck in traffic until the blockage cleared.  This situation was always worst in bad weather. 

One morning towards the end of my first term there was a heavy snowfall.  The only adults in school by the start of the school day were myself, the deputy head (who came by train), the school nurse, the school secretary and the kitchen staff.

“What happens now?” I asked the deputy.

“We can’t send them home.” explained the school nurse.  “It’s not safe. We have to keep them in school, and hope enough staff make it through.”

“What usually happens, is that we put them in the hall with a video, till the staff come in,” added the deputy head.

” I’ll send Sukvinder down to her uncle’s video shop,” offered the school secretary. “He always lets us have something suitable.”

Sukvinder was despatched  to the shop at the end of the street, while we organised the pupils.  Because we were in such a deprived area, the school kitchens were opened for breakfast.  This meant we could leave the pupils in the dining room for a while, till we had the video set up in the hall.

Sukvinder soon returned in triumph carrying a plastic carrier bag.

“Uncle’s sent us something really good,” she said. “Because it’s Christmas, he says we can have this for a special treat!”

The deputy head sent her off to the dining room to alert Nurse and Secretary to allow the pupils to come down to the hall.  Meanwhile we loaded the video into the machine. 

It was only then that we realised what it was- it was an illegal, pre-release copy of ET!   ET was just then being hyped as the biggest cinema release for the  upcoming Christmas holiday. 

But what could we do?  By now Sukvinder would have spread the news of Uncle’s Christmas treat.  We had 400 excited pupils and hardly any teachers.  We had a warm, safe hall, entertainment and a working kitchen to provide hot food.

We showed the film.  It was a dreadful copy – it was so dark you could hardly see it on the screen.  But even our hardest pupils were riveted to it.  They sniffed and wept their way through it.  The hall throbbed with emotion.

In ones and twos the rest of the staff appeared, but there was no way we could stop the showing.  At the end there was a communal sob as ET took off at last for home.

We must have broken every rule in the book, but what a shared emotional experience.  The best Christmas treat ever!