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Without 'Principal' Character, It's Just Not a Christmas Play

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on December 19, 1992


by Roz Young


            You probably didn't know it when you were in school that coaching the Christmas play was a task that no teacher wanted. In days when schools had Christmas plays, the principal assigned a teacher to coach the play, and he or she was stuck with it year after year unless a new teacher joined the faculty. At Washington School a teacher named Miss Willoughby coached the Christmas play for years. One year the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education decided that rather than having eight grades in the elementary schools and four in the high schools, the elementary school would be grades 1 through 6, junior high 7 through 9 and senior high 10 through 12.

            Washington School had seven new teachers that year. Miss Mabel Willoughby, the eighth-grade English teacher, saw an opportunity to get rid of coaching the Christmas play, and it was foisted off on the new ninth-grade English teacher.

            I was that teacher, and innocent that I was, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. Miss Willoughby handed me an envelope of tattered papers detailing the Christmas play. The same play had been given every year since 1898, the year the school opened. I looked it over and decided to scrap the old play. I was fresh out of college and chose to put on instead a medieval nativity play. In it the shepherds come onstage, telling their troubles - the hard winter and their cantankerous wives. Mak, a cunning scamp, steals one of the sheep and hides it in a cradle, and Mak's wife pretends it is her newborn baby. Just as the shepherds discover the theft and give Mak a good tossing for punishment, the angels appear singing "Gloria in excelsis deo" and the shepherds, led by the star, set out for the manger in Bethlehem. When they arrive, they admire the baby and give him presents: one, a bird, another cherries, and a third a ball to play tennis. Their words of adoration are mixed with pity for the frailness of the tiny baby. I edited the play somewhat, and added the traditional wisemen and angels singing.

            Now I had never done Miss Willoughby any harm, so I don't see why she didn't warn me about the Washington Tradition. The Washington Tradition was that for the Christmas play. Miss Emma Clark, the principal, had to receive a special invitation, written out by the class of the English teacher in charge of the play. It made a good class exercise in English and penmanship as well, and the best invitation, written in the best penmanship, was chosen and the proud writer thereof was appointed to visit Miss Clark personally in her office and deliver the invitation. Miss Clark always thanked the writer profusely, posted the invitation on her bulletin board for all to see, and was escorted to her seat in the auditorium by the proud writer.

            After the play, the Washington Tradition was that Miss Clark made a Christmas speech from the stage to wish every child a merry Christmas. Then the audience filed out and went to their homerooms, where every child received an orange and a peppermint candy cane as Miss Clark's personal gift.

            Nobody told me about the Tradition. On the day of the play, all the children were led into the auditorium by the teachers and sat on the wooden seats, expectantly. Backstage the actors scurried around palpitating with excitement. The curtains opened and the play began.

            Things were going along smoothly when one of the teachers assigned to help keep order backstage said to me, "Miss Clark is not here. Look. Her seat is empty."

            I peeked out. Sure enough, her seat, one solitary wooden seat off to the side of the kindergarten seats, had no occupant. "Didn't you invite her?" asked the teacher.

            "Invite her? Why would anybody invite the principal to come to a play in her own school?"

            The teacher rolled up her eyes and walked off.

            The play continued. When we got to the funny part, the audience began to laugh. The laughter encouraged the actors, who began to ham it up a little. When it came time for Mak to steal the sheep, the kindergartner who played the sheep decided he didn't want to be in the cradle and put up quite a fight. The audience loved it and clapped loudly as they laughed.

            The auditorium door burst open. Miss Clark stalked in, her face a thundercloud under her dark brown pile of hair.

            "Stop the play!" she shouted and waited for silence. The actors congealed in their places. "I was sitting in my office," she said, "not having been invited to the play, when I heard sounds of laughter coming from this auditorium." Her plangent voice shook with stifled anger. "I do not know what could be humorous in a Christmas play," she went on, "but I do know this: Laughter at a Washington School Christmas play will not be tolerated."

            She stopped, glared at the actors and impaled the play coach with a murderous shaft from her eyes. Then she turned to the audience. "The play may continue," she said, "but there will be no laughter." Out she went.

            The play dragged to its end in gruesome silence and then the audience left soundlessly.

            In a little while a child from the office came into my room with a note in Miss Clark's perfect handwriting: "Since I was prevented from giving the children my usual Christmas good wishes, you may do so for me. You will find the oranges and candy canes outside your door. Give them out when the bell rings. Next year Miss Willoughby will have charge of the Christmas play."

            It's just as well, I am beginning to think, that schools don't have Christmas plays any more. Alas.