Monday, August 2, 2010

How I Single-handedly Saved or Destroyed the Christmas Program, Depending upon One's Point of View

I attended Catholic School for two years. That was long enough; probably too long, in fact.

I'm technically both a Catholic and a Latter-Day Saint, as I was blessed in a Mormon church without my parents' knowledge. (I've blogged about it somewhere in the March or April 2010 section if you're ever interested in the gory details.) My immediate family is Catholic. My dad was born Catholic. He's French-Canadian, and I think they're mostly a Catholic ethnicity. He had a ten-year stint at Mormonism when his family converted, but that, too, has been covered in an earlier blog. My mom is Irish Catholic. She was an Air Force brat and attended public or Catholic schools depending upon where her family lived and what was in close proximity.

Most of my mom's employment has been with public schools, so my brother and I attend public schools for the most part because my mom thinks it's hypocritical for her to accept money to work in a system that is not good enough to educate her own children. For a little over two years, though, we lived in the San Joaquin Valley because my dad was alternating between so many different sites that it was the most centrally located area, and my Godparents (who are also an aunt and uncle, but not any of the evil ones) lived there. My Godmother babysat us after school, so we attended the same Catholic school my cousins attended just for the sake of convenience.

My moment of glory as a Catholic School student occurred when I was almost expelled as a second-grader who was barely seven. The story has no particular relevance to anything that I've written in my blog recently or, for that matter, to anything that's happening in the world today, but I am going to share the experience because just thinking of it makes me laugh.

Catholic schools are known for operating on shoestring budgets and usually do a fairly remarkable job on the limited funds they have. My Catholic elementary school didn't have a teacher who could play the piano. The school could have reduced the tuition for some kid by having his or her parent accompany the school choirs or play for school masses, but this would have resulted in a loss of much-needed revenue. So the principal did the next best thing, which was to use the most accomplished pianist in the student body as the official school pianist. Unfortunately for them, it happened to be a second-grader, me, who was only six until December of that year.

I missed the last ninety minutes of class twice a week to play for the junior and senior choirs. I didn't struggle academically, so my parents never complained. Come to think of it, I'm not sure they ever knew it was happening. Everything was usually fine, because everything I needed to play was pretty much spelled out. Then came the Christmas Program, which happened about two weeks after I turned seven.

This was when my mom had leukemia, and she and my dad were in Los Angeles for one procedure or another. My aunt took me and the other kids in the family to the program. My uncle didn't come with us because he's a Portuguese dairyman whose parents came from the Azores. Except for my brother and me, nearly every kid in that school was the child of Azores-descended parents (even my cousins Michael and Philip were novelties at the school because they were half-breeds, with the other half being Irish), and nearly all were dairymen or farmers. Azores-descended dairymen and farmers, in general, were and still are not overly fond of sitting through children's religious Christmas programs somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours in length, yet most of their wives insisted that they attend.

They did attend, but first they met for an hour or two at a tavern less than a mile down the road from the school in order to anaesthetize themselves sufficiently to make the Christmas program experience almost bearable. (One year a whole pack of them were charged with DUI, so after that, wives took turns transporting them by van to the tavern, and then on to the school. They farmers and dairymen talked about renting limousines, but the wives thought it was a ridiculous waste of money.)

Anyway, the church school Nativity-style Christmas program, typical in most aspects except for the inebriated farmers and dairymen and the barely seven-year-old piano accompanist, started off without incident. Shepherds, sheep, and angels all more or less wandered onto the stage at the right time. Then came the Holy Family right on schedule. Things progressed normally enough until one of the Wise Men, who probably shouldn't have been forced to perform that night, hurled the entire contents of his gastric system all over the stage. The principal, a nun, who was directing the program, rushed up to me and hissed, "Play something!"

"What?" I asked her.

"Anything," she said. "Just not one of the songs that has already been sung or one that is going to be sung." She hurried onto the stage to grab a mop and join the crew that was already attempting damage control. It was so vile that I could smell it from the piano off-stage. I don't know how they avoided having a chain reaction from all the kids actually on the stage who were in close view and smelling range.

Sister Bernadette had told me to play anything except the any of the songs included in the program, but exactly what did that mean? Practically every Christmas song known to man except "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" was included in the program, and even I at the age of seven knew better than to play that one. I thought for a moment, then broke into a song my father had taught me to play. I thought it was religious because it mentioned the Bible, the mortal soul, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I don't know if you're familiar with the song, because it's really old, but it's called "American Pie," it's by Don McLean, and I now know it is NOT a religious song.

At first it sounded reverent enough, but not for long. By now, I probably have the skill to play through the entire song note-for-note in a sufficiently Muzak style that few people would recognize it. As a seven-year-old, I lacked that skill. The most devout people were usually seated near the front, while the drunken dairymen and farmers hovered near the exit doors. The pious people in the front gasped as I played. The drunken Azores Portuguese men sang along. One of them, who is supposedly something like the leading sweet potato farmer in the world, had a little higher blood-alcohol content than most, and he knew all the words to the song and had a pretty good voice, so he walked up to the front and grabbed the microphone. He basically led the crowd, except for the pious people, in a rousing rendition of the long version of "American Pie," which is something like six minutes in length, giving Sister Bernadette and her crew just enough time to mop the barf off the stage and scrape it off the costumes of those who were unfortunately near enough to be hit by the fallout.

The program ended soon enough, as the Wise Men don't come in until near the end, and it was a Wise Man who had wreaked the havoc by upchucking all over every surface within a fifteen-foot radius. I played "Silent Night" as the entire audience and cast sang along, as had been planned.

Afterward, my Aunt Victoria attempted to leave hastily, but my Uncle Ralph wanted to pose by the piano with me while all his drunken Azores farmer and dairymen friends took pictures. As brief as it was, it was sort of my moment of glory. I don't think anyone had ever before been nor has ever since been so proud of anything I had done in my entire life as my Uncle Ralph was that night. He reminded everyone within earshot that I was his Godchild and claimed to have taught me most of what I knew. The only song he knows how to play on the piano to this day is "Chopsticks," and he doesn't even play it all that well.

On the way home, my Aunt Victoria acted mildly ticked at my Uncle Ralph for having behaved like a drunken fool (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the sweet potato king's Mercedes), but she didn't seem upset with me. She probably had the common sense to know that if you tell a seven-year-old to play "anything," you're going to get whatever you get, and you should not pitch a hissy fit over it.

When school started the next morning, I was soon summoned to Sister Bernadette's office. She had me writing numerous Acts of Contrition, Mea Culpas, and other prayers of repentance. I spent the entire day in her office. Someone eventually brought my sack lunch to me and allowed me to eat it, but then it was back to copying prayers pleading for mercy for my much-in-jeopardy soul.

At 3:10, my Aunt Victoria showed up to pick up her children as well as my brother and me. All the other kids knew was that I had been in the office all day.

My aunt went into the office. Sister Bernadette met her at the counter and informed her that I still had two hours of detention to serve, at which point a loud discussion ensued. It ended with my aunt walking into Sister Bernadette's inner office and taking me by the arm, pulling me out of the office. Sister Bernadette said, "If you take her now, she's out of this school for good!"

"We'll see about that!" my aunt huffed as she dragged me out.

I don't really know how it was resolved, except that I do know money talks where Catholic schools are concerned, and that a phone tree soon had many wealthy Azores-descended families (probably not the pious ones) up in arms over the issue. There were only two more days of school before Christmas vacation, so my aunt "homeschooled" all of us. Holy Mother of Lady Gaga, I would have rather been back in Sister Bernadette's office copying Acts of Contrition than doing all the work my aunt made us do.

All I ever really knew was that when school resumed after Christmas vacation, my cousins, brother, and I were all back in school and Sister Bernadette had been reassigned to somewhere in Arizona. My Uncle Ralph drinks to excess on occasion, and when I'm around during his drunken stupor times, he loves to tell the story of how I saved the Christmas Program.

The best thing about it was that it was my First Holy Communion year. I learned several of the prayers we were required to memorize just from copying them ad nauseum in Sister Bernadette's office.

Occasionally I'll hear "American Pie" when my parents force us to listen to oldies stations in the car. In some bizarre sort of Pavlovian response, I instinctively begin reciting The Act of Contrition as soon as I hear the opening strains of the song. It's odd how the brain works to make such connections.


  1. Your Catholic school experience sounds a whole lot more exciting than anything I ever experienced at mine.

  2. What a marvelous story; interesting ,funny and very well written.
    Alexis this experience that you remember in such a detail and now going back you laugh about it, is not only an experience is a memory of your early years and has been stored in your hard drive of your brain so is going to be there for a long time.
    Seriously you are a good writer and you should write a book ...about anything at all (oh sorry I think I sound like sister Bernadette) any subject it will be a breeze for you ;I mean it
    If you ever have any problems with your brain computer call me; Do not fear Catherine is here;-)
    Take Care smart young lady.

  3. Dear Mrs. Catherine,
    Thanks you so much for your kind words of encouragement and praise. I do plan to write abook, but I'm having a tough time narrowing my focus to a genre, much less a topic. It will happen, though, probably as partial fulfillment of a senior Rnglish requirment.
    P.S. Until recently, an injury made it impossible for me to use my right hand for typing. Now that I can type with both hands, writing is actually fun.