Not only do I not know where to begin when talking about my mom's elementary school music programs, I also wouldn't know where to end. I was a part of them as a participant for 7 years... 9 if you count the times that she was also the junior high school band instructor and I was in junior high. 13 if you count the next 4 years when I was recruited to help set up and take down risers, run the spotlight when necessary, or be an all-purpose general helper/roadie for mom. These programs were a logistic network coordinated by mom, but the generals on the ground were all the teachers that helped pull their part and got each class in to place when they needed to be and out of the way when they needed to be. They were the supervisors of the busy little mouths that were all aflutter and excited to be both in their classroom in the evening (which was always kind of cool for the kids) and then to be all dressed up and ready to sing for their parents and their grandparents.
They'd been practicing and rehearsing their songs over and over and over again. The program was sometimes just different groups each singing their few songs, then would culminate in a few group numbers. But sometimes there'd be a program to it all... a script... parts to speak... solos... costumes... props.... and a set. Those were the best. Often it would be something like this:
Setting: North Pole, Santa's Workshop
1st graders - choir
2nd graders - toys and dolls
3rd graders - Elves
4th graders - Angels and Ginger Bread men
5th graders - snowmen
6th graders - Reindeer
The kids had their place in the program and would each come out in between the dialogue that usually had something to do with saving Christmas or finding a lost toy at the workshop or something of that sort. There'd usually be a fair amount of forgotten lines, quietly spoken lines, lines spoken too quickly and maybe even a microphone that wasn't working properly. But it was still always amazing that more stuff didn't go wrong.... as it clearly could have.
Mom always seemed to make the evening a special event for everyone. Even the kids who didn't seem to have much family there... maybe they didn't have the nicest clothes or they weren't the most popular kid. I think they all enjoyed being able to participate in the Christmas program with their classmates or for their teacher or parents. Whatever each child's reason, there was much enjoyment going on for everybody there.
There was always a certain pecking order as to who sat where in the audience too... many of the grandmas and town elders tended to sit on the chairs on the floor. Sometimes the teachers would sit in the front row to keep the kids in line as they stood up front, A Garretson Weekly representative, usually Margie Martens would be up front too, taking pictures for the Weekly. The parents, sisters, brothers and others would sit on the bleachers on the sides... the kids usually taking the back rows so they could horse around a little bit. A few dad's would stand at the back of the gym, either because they liked to stand or maybe because they came in late. Or, maybe they would need to step out for a smoke from time to time. I'm not really really sure. Back then, they could smoke in the cafeteria inside the school (yeah, I know, right... it's a whole other topic that I'll go into another time). And then at the front, leading it all, was my mom.... Mary Susan Nelson (later Mary Susan Simko)... leading it all. She'd lead the program from behind the piano. She wasn't one that needed somebody to play piano for her... not to belittle those music teachers that do. My mom was just used to doing it that way. She stood at the piano, music on the top that she'd glance at as she played with one eye and the other on the kids, usually on the kids that she knew she needed to keep an eye on. Not to be stereotypical, but it was usually one or two boys. Every class had them... one, two or may three. She kept those kids on her radar.
Mom had a lot on her plate during the days leading up to this program, more than those kids that were on her radar. She also had the stress of all the program planning, extra practices at school, the worrying if the kids were ready, the costumes getting completed in the classrooms, kids remembering their lines.... and then there were the things that people didn't realize were part of the equation happening behind the scenes.
One of those things, at least early on in my mom's teaching career, was that she made herself an outfit specifically for the program. It might have been a colorful smock vest or blouse with some pants, or perhaps a dress. But her clothes that night were originals from her (well, I'm sure they were from a pattern, but SHE made them).
The other thing that most parents didn't know about, but all the teachers did, was that she had to get ready to entertain the entire elementary staff at our house following the program. Not just cleaning the place and having it ready to show to so many people, it also involved having the food and refreshments ready. Mulled wine, cider, hot chocolate, beer, wine, meats and cheese tray, cheese ball, crab dip, chips and dip, swedish meatballs, bbq links... it was usually quite a spread.
We'd hustle home as soon as we could clean up at school. Grandma O would be there to help, I remember, and my job was usually to get the candles all lit and make sure the fireplace was going. Once the teachers started coming to the front door, Matthew and I would take their coats and take them up to a bedroom. The pile of coats grew as the first 1/2 hour progressed and then later would dwindle down again.
It was always so interesting to see the teachers outside of the school. And to see them all together was an especially odd sight. I'd listen carefully with my peripheral hearing to try to catch parts of conversations, hoping to hear juicy gossip about my classmates or things happening at school, but they always seemed to just talk about normal things. Things that I didn't know teachers talked about: the car they were driving, vacations, taxes, introductions of spouses to each other... most of the teachers had been there and knew each other's spouses quite well, but every year there was a couple new ones to town and the spouses that came to the party was perhaps their first social interaction with the other spouses and teachers. Matthew and I would mingle downstairs by the food but then make our way upstairs and out of the way when we grew tired of all the adults.
It WAS usually a school night, if I remember right. Probably a Monday or a Tuesday... we likely had school the next day. And I remember learning ONE lesson in particular a couple of times (I wasn't the best at learning apparently): in our home and in the privacy of a close social situation, it was ok to call the teachers by their first names, but once we were back at school, that first name stuff just didn't fly.
Mom was pretty amazing for putting that together year after year after year, and we always said that when she retired, it was going to be some pretty big shoes to fill for the next person that came along. And it was. We heard about it for quite a while. But people's expectations were up pretty high after being spoiled by my mom for so long. In recent years, I've heard that the music teacher(s) is doing a fantastic job and is putting together quite a program once again. I'm tickled to hear that. I bet my mom smiles at the little singers, all donning their good clothes, hair combed and brushed best they could do and singing their hearts out for grandma to hear... and she's probably trying her best to help keep an eye on those two boys in the back that should've been separated but weren't are now giggling with each other. I'm sure she wishes she could help with that somehow..
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.