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Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Something To Sneeze At

Something To Sneeze At

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It never pays to upset the janitor, especially at concert time.

As early as summer vacation the specter of the traditional holiday concert looms large and menacing at my K-6 school. There is no escaping the concert. Or its rules. Each class has to perform a short piece, and everyone must participate.

One performance a few years ago was no exception. The Concert Committee had agreed on a secular theme: Christmas around the world. A range of countries and their holiday traditions would be represented, but religious references would be avoided as much as possible. Santa, elves, Scrooge, and other fictional characters were acceptable, but biblical characters were not.

I signed my 4th grade class up to represent Australia, where December is summertime. My students would be able to wear T-shirts, shorts, and sunglasses, and the language wouldn't be a problem.

I had participated in an exchange program in Australia the year before, so I even had a song. It was about kangaroos pulling Santa's sleigh and what happens when Joey kangaroo gets lost. To distinguish ourselves from most other classes, which planned only to sing,

I added an instrumental accompaniment. I wrote a simple score and borrowed a large wooden autoharp, big enough for two children, from the music department. We already had three glockenspiels and a host of percussion instruments, which meant that everyone could participate.

After the hullabaloo of Halloween had passed, I introduced the song to the class. "The concert is only six weeks away," I said, "so we have to work hard on this." They sang with candy-fueled gusto and laughed at the idea of kangaroos drawing a sleigh. We'd made it past the first hurdles.

Over the next few days, we squeezed in several practices, which were followed by auditions for the key instruments. Justin and Nathan, who wanted to play autoharp together, worked very hard because Greg and Nick were competing for the same job. Justin and Nathan tried so hard, in fact, that they broke a string, which vibrated impressively as it flipped across the instrument. Always looking for the teachable moment, I took a few minutes to talk about sound waves. Justin and Nathan were not listening.

Everyone else got to choose their percussion instruments, although I wouldn't let Jeff have the cymbals. He had a talent for clashing them on offbeats, when everyone else was resting. Once he accidentally caught Jennifer's braid between the discs, yanking her head backward and, thanks to her scream, adding to the cacophony. The only problem we had with the sleigh "bells" was when Brad dropped his string of bottle caps, which rolled all over the floor. We spent some time finding them. We knew the janitor would be upset if a bottle cap clogged up his vacuum cleaner. And it never pays to upset the janitor, especially at concert time.

The glockenspiel group needed particular attention. Trouble occurred at the start of rehearsals when the ball of Brenda's hammer kept flying off the stick, once giving Lydia a bruised eyelid. Applying copious amounts of glue to the hammer rectified the problem.

After weeks of rehearsal, all that was left to do was make a mural of Santa and six white kangaroos, one that could be shaken by students at the appropriate moments. The entire class traced the kangaroos, and Justin and Kyle cut them out. Justin then insisted on adding baby kangaroos in pouches, which he created with some Christmas card envelopes and lots of Scotch tape. But Jennifer said this was silly because male kangaroos were pulling the sleigh; and, besides, the babies might fall out. So we stuck pouchless kangaroos to a long strip of black paper—the night sky—and attached Santa and a sleigh dug up from the previous year's decoration box. On the day of the concert, there were two performances. The first, a matinee for stay-at-home parents, went off smoothly, and I was encouraged. For the evening show, people began lining up at 6:15. As the doors opened, a huge knot of attendees surged forward, all aiming for the front rows.

The first pieces were performed by the kindergartners. The expressions on the construction-paper-crowned faces varied from terror to complete lack of awareness that they were on stage before an audience. Most looked unabashed and confident as they grinned, gap-toothed, at the applauding moms and dads.

Then came two or three songs performed with some sort of sound accompaniment—clapping, recorded pieces of music, and the like. None of the students played instruments, so my students were not to be upstaged. Some of the classes had elaborate props; the 5th graders representing Germany, for instance, brought along a traditional Christmas tree. Robbie, whom I'd taught the previous year, managed to knock the tree over as the rest of the class was putting on decorations, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone knew that Robbie's mother was president of the PTA.

Our class was to follow the 6th graders, who sang a song about Hanukkah and did an Israeli dance. We waited out in the hall, lined up against the 2nd grade paintings of Jack Frost's helpers. Jeffrey spent a lot of time in the washroom, and everyone seemed oblivious of the need to keep quiet.

At last, it was our turn. As the 6th graders exited the stage, I noticed one was carrying a candelabra fitted with wax candles, not the electric versions that had been used during rehearsals. Someone, I guess, had decided the occasion merited the real thing.

My class took its seats, and Bryan dropped his bells, but no one noticed because the audience was welcoming us with applause. Nick was fussing because he'd left his sunglasses on the bench outside the gym. I told him that people forget their glasses on the beaches in Australia, so no one would think he was out of place.

In a few minutes it would all be over, and I'd savor that well-earned cup of coffee.

As the piano accompaniment began, the percussion section seemed prepared to come in at just the right moment. Everything was going to be all right. In a few minutes it would all be over, and I'd savor that well-earned cup of coffee.

For most people, the smoke hanging pungently in the air from the 6th grade candelabra would not have been a problem. But Justin is allergic to just about everything, and I could see his nose wrinkling as he and Nathan tried to find the correct chords on the autoharp. Standing beside the instrument, which was positioned at the front of the stage, he was particularly visible. He was also at candle-smoke height. It was too late for me to do anything but grit my teeth and hope for the best. Perhaps he would just give a little sneeze, and that would be all. I raised my hand to signal the first note.

Everyone came in on time. Everyone was smiling. Then Justin sneezed. It was no ordinary sneeze, a brief explosion and a subsidence. His whole body shook with the blast. He was thrown into a paroxysm of movement that propelled his torso across the autoharp. Justin reached out to steady himself and fell on the tightly strung metal strings just as Nathan strummed. The harp crashed to the floor, and Justin followed. The sound, magnified by a microphone, was not the sort that could be ignored. The class wasn't sure what to do. And, when that happens, they usually giggle. Habits are hard to break, so this is what they did. The pianist carried on bravely, but there was nothing left to do but close the curtain on the whole disaster.

I rushed over to help Justin, who was recovering from his attack. The other students were shooed off the stage by adults. The tattered mural featuring six white kangaroos was hastily removed by stagehands so that they could prepare for the next act, which I knew would be a safe production. No instruments. No sneezes. Just singing. As Justin and I limped off stage left, I thought I would keep these details in mind for next year.

Despite the disaster, my students were still applauded. They also thought they'd had more fun than ever before. And Justin's presentation will be remembered for years to come. Joy to the world!

Vol. 12, Issue 3, Pages 52-53

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