My primer-first grade class was the very first to occupy the new school building in 1936-1937. We were proud of the smell of newly placed pine lumber that ceiled the inside of the building. We were fascinated by the removable partitions between the "lower grades" room and the "upper grades" room. And on special occasions, that partition was removed, a moveable stage was put in place, and all we young scholars who studied in grades primer through seventh grade were ready to perform on that stage before our parents and others in the community. Christmas was one of those times.
In my growing-up years, Christmas was a very special time. Compared to the glitter and commercialization of our present age, what we enjoyed and considered special treats would be meager, indeed. But we celebrated in our own way, and within the walls of that two-room, two-teacher country school much joy emanated to the whole community.
Remembering, the first item on the Christmas preparation agenda was "assigning of parts." Our teachers- in this case, Mrs. Mert Shuler Collins who had the lower grades, and Mrs. Florence Jackson Hunter, principal and upper grades instructor, were the teachers in charge.
They drew from their magic cache of Christmas program materials- whether written by themselves or from some "Christmas Celebrations" book- "parts" were assigned to every child in their care. No one could be left out of the glorious Christmas program.
The upper grades had "the play." This was a mini-drama, much rehearsed and prepared with necessary make-do costumes and props. Each child memorized lines until they became a part of his/her repertoire. The play was a little slice of life, teaching character traits of hospitality and generosity and decrying selfishness. It was an honor to be chosen for a part in the school drama and each actor/actress took seriously the part assigned.
The lower grades had the usual acrostic in which each child held letters spelling out messages like C-H-R-I-S-T-MA S C-H-E-E-R or H-A-P-P-Y H-O-L-I-D-A-Y-S.
The two lines of the poem forming the acrostic were all the little ones had to memorize. They were taught how to hold their letter straight, so that the visitors could readily read the message they spoke about. Those who could handle more than a two-line recitation were given longer poems, or a story about Christmas to recite.
All the grades together practiced singing Christmas carols. We didn't have a piano at the school, so the "tune" was formed by listening to a tuning fork held gingerly by one of the teachers and blown upon to give the proper pitch for each carol. We sang with gusto and joy, albeit it not always in tune. It wasn't perfection of performance but melody and message for which we strived.
Then came the drawing of names. This was when each class exchanged names, and the responsibility lay with the student to bring a present to the person whose name was drawn. What about some of the very poor children who might not be able to afford to buy a present?
Looking back, I see now that we all were "poor," monetarily speaking, but we didn't know it for we had food, clothing and shelter. Somehow, my parents, and those of other students, managed to get a meager gift for the "name drawn." I wasn't aware of what went on behind the scenes then, but I've learned since that the teachers always provided "emergency" gifts for any who were not able to get a gift for their "name drawn" person. That way, everyone in the school was assured a gift.
The week before school was out for Christmas, and the day of the big Christmas program, we spent much time and effort making decorations. The older boys went to the nearby woods and cut a well-shaped pine tree for a Christmas tree. In our "art" classes, we had been making colored paper chains to decorate the tree. We also strung popcorn and holly berries. We made snowflakes, cut from paper and fastened them to the tree. Our school tree would not take a prize in beauty in a decorating contest. But in joy of creating something which we thought beautiful, our room decorations rated high marks, indeed. Each window was decorated with a construction-paper candle, snowman, or laughing Santa. Our school house was ready for visitors.
Then came the day of the big performance. We had the two rooms, now opened into one large one, set for our visitors, our parents and others in the community. A sense of nervous anticipation pervaded the students. Could we pull off this program and please our teachers and our parents?
We had no need for concern. Whatever we did was appreciated and applauded.
And when it came time to distribute presents, whatever we received brought smiles and pleasure. A bag with an apple, an orange, some wrapped candy kisses- and pencils, always pencils with our names on them- came from our teachers. The play, the recitations and the caroling all went well. The wood heaters had put out too much heat with the school rooms overcrowded with people. But everyone left happy and elated.
Christmas had come again to Choestoe School. And we had been a part in bringing the happiest of all days of the year to fruition. If snow would only fall on our walk home from the schoolhouse, it would be of all times the merriest, with each snowflake a smile from heaven to earth's brown sod.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 6, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.