The Christmas Box
Entry # 9:
The Chocolate Factory
The following excerpt is found on a storage box, used to house Christmas ornaments, a bedraggled cardboard arrangement, upon which I began scrawling an annual message, careful to affix the date each year. Some of the messages are filled with hope and whimsy; others, with dark forebodings of dire straits. Still others contain a blending of the two, a more accurate description of life up here on the mountain, on Bell Springs Road, and possibly where you live, also.
January 5th, 1996
Christmas sure went fast this year;
Deal the cards-let’s have a beer.
See you in a year.
Three lines of bad poetry? If the offering seems paltry this year, there is no shortage of interesting events, which continue to show the three boys in a variety of interesting and challenging school experiences.
This would have been the first year that I had two of them in my core language/reading/social studies classes, and on top of that, there was elective. Casey would have been an eighth grader, and this was the first year that we went for all of the marbles by doing a production of Twelfth Night, the first of the indoor dramatizations, after we began to perform inside the converted classroom.
My earlier efforts at producing middle school drama involved first, Shake Hands with Shakespeare, which featured simplified versions of scenes of Shakespeare, and then a longer version of Romeo and Juliet. I felt this current class was ready for the next step, so I downloaded Twelfth Night, pared it down a bit, but kept the language identical to the original. So what we ended up with was a full-length version with authentic dialogue.
Interestingly enough, as early as it was in my drama career, I devised the system of selecting cast members, via committee. Working with one other well-known adult on campus, and one student, we set out to select a cast. We based our decisions on auditions that took place not only in front of us, but also in front of all members of the class, who were not trying out for a part.
Thus it was that the previous year, Laurel won the role of Romeo. I emphasized to the kids that in Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed on the stage, and that men had to play the roles of women. Therefore, I concluded, it was perfectly acceptable that now, roles be non gender-specific. I personally was thrilled, because I simply wanted to see the most qualified do the role.
Opposite Laurel, Ella was Juliet, while Casey played Mercutio, and performed the famous Queen Mab Speech. We performed out on the small field, between the middle school and the garden. People hollering in the background, cars blaring by and dogs barking accompanied the delivery of lines.
It was this unwelcome intrusion of noise that drove us inside the next year, for our first Theater-in-the-Round production, where we turned my octagonal classroom into a Shakespearean Theater. By removing all tables, and placing black plastic around the five sides of the classroom that were not taken up with scenery, we created the impression of a real theater. We covered the windows and the skylight with the same black plastic, and brought in about fifty extra chairs from the multi=purpose room. For a typical performance, we could comfortably seat 75-80 people.
This production of Twelfth Night marked my most ambitious middle school endeavor, because it is such a complex play. This year Ella wanted to play a funny guy, after being Juliet the previous year, so she became Sir Toby Belch, while Casey waxed drolly on as Malvolio, mastering his snootiness to perfection. They were hilarious.
Meanwhile, Ben was fresh off a performance of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in Mrs. Potter’s class, just before Christmas, and thus missed our performance of Twelfth Night. Ben actually made a transition to the middle school, unprecedented in the annals of our history, going from the fifth grade at the start of Christmas break, to the sixth grade when we came back.
Back when he was kindergarten/first grade age, we had given him the gift of time, and we now wanted him back in his age-appropriate grade. It was a perfect time, because he had shot up in height, and was applying himself in school amazingly well. His ability to pull off Willy Wonka was a clear indication that the time had come. Of course, with his arrival in the middle school, the price of poker went up.
Ben was now eligible for high stakes action, which involved doing what the other kids did, and facing consequences. It was still the first week of his being in my class, one afternoon just after lunch, after I had given the warning about getting rid of all chewing gum, and we were doing SSR. Ben figured he could get away with chewing a piece anyway, and got nailed. Before I knew what I was saying, I had assigned him lunch detention for the following day, and that was that.
I felt horrible and wished I could withdraw from the whole sordid affair, but down the line, I made two connections: the first is that for me to have not followed through, would have made Ben a marked man, “teacher’s kid.” Secondly, slamming Ben the first week, for such a stupid offense, sent the message not only to him, but to the rest of the class, that Benny was not getting any favors for free.
Lito was in Lorre Stange’s 4th grade class, a teacher the boys all loved because she not only knew about sports, she talked about sports. She was/is an avid Giants fan, going so far as to bring me back an N.L. Championship tee shirt, in 2002, when she attended one of the World Series games against the Angels. The Series took place during that hideous CLAD workshop, that marked the beginning of the end for my career as an educator. Miss Stange was able to do some fun things with his class outside, because she was well versed in elementary/middle school P.E.
The fourth grade studied California history and Lito manufactured a California Mission. I could have sworn that he chose San Diego’s Mission, and when I googled it, I found that I was right. He broke from tradition and did not use sugar cubes, a tradition that went back to my own fourth grade effort, and instead, made his out of foam board. All of the boys had worked with this lightweight backing, primarily when doing their History Day Projects, and Science Fair experiments, so it worked out well for him. As any parent of a kid who had to make a mission knows, “working out well” meant he got it done, on time, without weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
Later in the year, the class went to the Gold Country and investigated the original version of California’s 49ers. Though there was no Joe Montana or Jerry Rice, there was a lot of fun to be had, and the kids had a blast. Besides, the football 49ers had done well also, making it to the playoffs in George Seifert’s last year as coach, but ending up losing to the Green Bay packers, 27-17, on the day after I had written this inscription. It just goes to show you can’t win them all, unless you are talking about Christmas, in which case I would beg to differ, and I am living proof. I never did lose a Christmas.