The burp before Christmas

As a child, I lived under the ironfisted rule of a totalitarian regime. Those who held authority over me constantly reinforced their draconian edicts with such phrases as, “Go ask your father!” and “Stop whining! You have to brush your teeth whether you like it or not!” and “Because I said so, that’s why!”

Every December it was decreed that all of the children in our district participate in a music-based Christmas-centric entertainment program. Child labor laws were flouted with impunity. The level of callousness was staggering.

It made not a molecule of difference if a child — me, for instance — protested repeatedly that he lacked even the tiniest scintilla of musical aptitude. Despite this and other equally immutable arguments, the child would be compelled to take part.

There were times when the pitilessness went beyond the mere command to publicly perform Christmas songs in a choir. Each year, a few hapless children would be selected to be actors in a Christmas play. I wasn’t just a witness to this unpleasantness; I was forced to participate in it.

Five days per week, several hundred unfortunate urchins and I were incarcerated for hours and hours in a grim facility called a “public grade school.” Amid my sixth year in this facility, the wardens inexplicably chose me to be an actor in the Christmas play.

This astonishing development hit me like a water balloon dropped from the peak of a barn roof.

It occurred that being an actor in the play would thus exempt me from singing in the choir. I would no longer be cajoled, along with my fellow inmates, by our choir director to “Open your mouths!” and be told, “Louder, boys! I can’t HEAR you!”

There was a reason why she couldn’t hear the boys: hardly any of us were singing. Long years of bitter experience had turned many of us into hardened lip-synch artists. Our mouths moved, but no noise came out. Despite being divided fairly equally along gender lines, we sounded like a girls’ choir.

I soon comprehended that the downsides of being in the play would far outweigh my exemption from choir duty. In the worst miscasting in all of theatrical history, I was assigned the role of a Wise Man. In addition to acting, I was also instructed to deliver a line! Words that were to be uttered at the height of a play that would be performed before a live audience! Death from embarrassment seemed imminent.

But I had to memorize more than my lone line. In order to deliver my epic oration at the proper moment, I had to learn the entire play!

And that wasn’t the worst of it. I was also required to attend several rehearsals, the last of which was held on a Saturday afternoon. The level of fiendishness was breathtaking. There are few things more sacrosanct to an 11-year-old boy than his Saturday afternoon. Demanding that he give up his freedom is like asking him to sacrifice a prized possession such as his secret, under-the-bed shoebox stash of interesting bugs.

Our performance troupe began as a hodge-podge of inexperienced would-be thespians. But our director, Miss Widmer, must have seen something in us, something that we didn’t realize that we had. With persistence and patience and innumerable takes, she whipped us into a solid cadre of actors. We were still a hodge-podge, but at least we were somewhat experienced.

During rehearsals, I began to see the point of it all. I began to see how art can lift the human spirit, can make life bearable even under the grimmest of circumstances.

The evening of the Christmas program finally arrived. The various choirs chirped their songs, still sounding decidedly girlish. Waiting in the wings with my fellow performers, my stomach began to feel like a washing machine running at Turbo-spin. I was offered a sip of soda and gratefully accepted.

Silence fell over the school gymnasium as we took our places on the stage. The time came for me to speak. As I opened my mouth, a small burp escaped. Thanks to Miss Widmer’s training, I was able to recover and successfully deliver my line.

The burp wasn’t heard beyond the stage. But my fellow actors perceived it clearly and had to strain mightily to stifle their giggles. Faces turned scarlet; lips were bitten.

The play received rave reviews. Audience members reported that, because of the high level of emotion displayed on our faces, it was apparent that we performers had really “felt it.”

Being in the Christmas play transformed my outlook regarding school. After all, any institution that can be changed with a timely burp can’t be all that grim.

COMMENTS