A Christmas Star

“Oh, you’ve brought an egg sandwich for lunch. I never bring egg sandwiches to work. They make the staff room smell so dreadfully.” Betty Reid looked as if some poor creature had crawled behind the photocopier to die.

Ellen James sighed inwardly. She didn’t often come into the staff room with its atmosphere of prissy spite. She much preferred eating in her classroom; working on a display, preparing resources for an activity or hearing children read.

“I love an egg sandwich, though…” she smiled, “one of my favourites.”

“Mmm…but not in the staff room perhaps.” Betty peeled and sliced her apple with delicate precision onto a bone china plate.

The action irritated Ellen. What was wrong with crunching your teeth deep into the flesh and letting the juice run down your chin? She imagined the look of horror on Betty’s face. Food was for enjoying, not an autopsy.

The reason Ellen had entered the room of doom this lunchtime was because she had been summoned. Betty, who happened to be Deputy Head due to retire at the end of the school year, wanted to discuss the Christmas performance.

“Well, if everyone is here and finished eating, I’ll begin…” Betty said. The staff room door opened and a thin woman with frizzy hair stumbled through and sat down with a mumbled apology. “Pamela, mmm…we are starting.” Betty stood up and straightened her A-line skirt so that it sat perfectly six inches below the knee. She looked around at the teachers gathered there.

All women, all middle-aged, apart from young Ellen in her second year of teaching, all tired and all enjoying a good gossip. Ellen often wondered whether a couple of male staff might improve the dynamic. There was Mr Brown of course, the Headteacher. In a profession dominated by women, in a school full of female staff, their reclusive Head was a man. He never entered the staff room at lunchtime – that was a women’s domain. He was rarely seen around the school, preferring the safety of his office, though he did have an uncanny way of appearing in the doorway of your classroom at the most inopportune moments. No wonder her colleagues were bitter.

“It’s the beginning of November all ready and we need to decide on our Christmas play.” Betty continued, “I think Pamela suggested we do a Nativity this year when we discussed this briefly at our last staff meeting.”

Pamela Gaunt gave a nervous nod, “Yes, well we haven’t done a Nativity for the last couple of years, have we? And I do love to see the story of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.”

Pamela Gaunt was in charge of Religious Education at the school. The most disorganised teacher Ellen had ever seen, her classroom was a shambles of scattered books, games and resources. Always late for meetings, she never had the right report or folder with her; her class never arrived on time at assembly or often turned up in the school hall on the wrong day. She didn’t seem to do any planning, rambling from one unfinished activity to the next. Much like her classroom, Pamela was a dishevelled mess. Her clothes looked like they had been pulled from straight the laundry basket each morning and she usually wore her cardigan inside out. Ellen liked Pamela Gaunt. She was kind and lacked confidence. The children loved her too, despite the chaos, or perhaps because of it. The rest of the staff were cruel about Pamela behind her back, tut tutting about the state of her attire and the tattered, dusty displays on the walls of her classroom.

“No, we haven’t Pamela, thank you. Any other ideas?” Betty gave a hopeful smile.

The other teachers shook their heads.

“What about asking the children?” Ellen suggested.

A bluster of disapproval travelled around the room.

“The children!” Anne Foster exclaimed. “What an idea. It would be a fiasco!”

Anne foster was the Art Coordinator. She had been in the role for twenty years and had already stated she would be doing the scenery. This would involve drawing everything in outline for the children to fill in with paint – her speciality. Anne Foster was an imposing woman. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, heavy jawed and with hands that could crush a child’s skull to dust, few dared to argue with her. Not that Ellen was suggesting Anne had ever undertaken the crushing of a child’s head but there was still time…she had fifteen years until her retirement.

“What do you mean…a fiasco?” Ellen said.

“Children have no imagination these days.” said Carol Radford, Maths Coordinator. Carol had been Ellen’s mentor in her NQT year and she had the habit of surreptitiously altering the children’s work to make it look better than it actually was.

“Sorry? Surely…” Ellen tried to argue.

“It’ll be Barbie dolls and Action men.” interrupted Anne Foster.

“Or they’ll try and act a favourite film. Disney or Marvel or something awful like that…” said Liz Harris, PE Coordinator. Ellen had fallen out with Liz last summer when she remarked it might be good to try a non-competitive Sport’s Day, where the children worked as teams, rather than the usual races.

“The drivel they write for stories nowadays…all Harry Potter copies. It’s tiresome.” said Maggie Barker, English and Music Coordinator.

A flood of frustration engulfed Ellen. This always happened at staff meetings.

“Well, if there are no other ideas, a Nativity it is. Can I have a show of hands to ensure we are all agreed?” Betty said.

Everyone, except Ellen, raised their arms.

“Good, that’s pretty unanimous. Right, the bell will go shortly, so we must quickly decide who will be running this show. Anne has kindly offered to do her marvellous scenery again this year. Maggie will play the piano. We need someone to volunteer to sort out the play itself. It’s a demanding role but, I think, a rewarding one.” Betty eyed the room expectantly. Everyone avoided eye contact.

Finally, when Ellen could bear it no longer, she piped up, “I’ll do it if no one else wants to.”

“A little irregular for a teacher in only their second year to organise our special event.” Betty said shortly, “Anyone else?” The room was quiet. “Very well, Ellen it is, thank you.”

The bell rang out.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

During Circle Time, Ellen told her children about the Christmas performance and read them the Nativity story. Twenty-five upturned faces listened with wide-eyed concentration.

“Now Blue Class, I’ve said I will organise the show this year and I need your help.” Ellen said when she finished reading. Twenty-five mouths gasped in excitement, “Everyone in school will be in the play and we need to think about the different parts. I’m going to go around the circle and ask you one at a time for an idea about the people, animals and things we’ll need in the story. I’ll write your ideas on the whiteboard. Everyone will have a turn to say something and if you can’t think of anything, that is fine. All right?”

“Yes, Miss James.” the children chanted.

There was soon an impressive list on the whiteboard: Mary, Joseph and a doll for Jesus, shepherds, angels, kings and camels, the usual farm animals, a donkey (‘Oh yes Olivia, we must sing Little Donkey,’ agreed Ellen), an innkeeper, a llama (that had been Ben’s idea and everyone laughed but Ellen said there were camels, so why not a llama too?), a stable with manger, presents for Jesus (Ellen asked if anyone remembered what the three kings brought Jesus and received the confident answer of gold, Frankenstein and mirth from Chantelle), guests at the inn, a drummer boy (‘Another good song Dylan,’ Ellen smiled), costumes, crowns, angel wings and tinsel. Finally, Ellen got to Amy, who was sitting next to her feet, the last child in the circle. Amy had listened carefully to everyone’s ideas, occasionally standing up to excitedly repeat what her friends said. Her hands moved busily as she said the words as she was developing her Makaton sign language. Amy worked the hardest of all the children in Blue Class and was the most enthusiastic pupil in school. Everyone in class loved her and her teaching assistant, Miss Williams.

“Amy, can you think of anything?” Ellen signed the key words in her sentence.

Amy jumped up and down. “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” she signed and sang.

Ellen did a thumbs up, “Amy, that’s a good idea. The star that showed Jesus was born. We need a star.” She wrote the word star on the board and drew a star next to it.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…” Amy sang.

“Let’s all sing and sign ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, Blue Class.”

Later, when the children were settled at their afternoon activities, Ellen went over to speak to Amy and Miss Williams who were busy making autumn leaf prints.

Ellen crouched down at the desk, “Amy, I think you would be a brilliant star. Would you like to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ in the play?”

Amy dipped her brush into the orange paint and laughed, “Yes.”

Suddenly it was nearly home time, the children bustled and chatted as they tidied away their things then gathered on the carpet for a story and goodbye song. After waving the children off homeward, Ellen and Miss Williams sorted out materials for a tie dying activity the next morning.

“It’s lovely you asked Amy to be the star,” Karen Williams sliced a length of white cotton sheet into neat squares with pinking shears, “but are you sure? It won’t be popular.”

“Why shouldn’t Amy be the star?” Ellen said, “She’ll be great singing that song.”

Karen smiled, “I know that and you know that but I don’t think the rest of the staff will agree. For a start, it’s normally top class that take the main parts…”

“I’m running the show. They’ll just have to agree.” Ellen folded her arms in determination.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

A week later, the teachers were gathered in the staffroom again to discuss Ellen’s plans. They had to decide who in Anne Foster’s Red Class would be taking the lead roles and what the other classes would be doing. As usual, Maggie’s Green Class would be the choir. There was no negotiation on that.   

“Oranges have such a pungent smell and all that juice is dreadfully sticky.” Betty Reid wrinkled her nose as Ellen self-consciously stuck her thumb into the pitted peel.

“Lovely and fresh compared to eggs, though.” Ellen smiled. 

“Yes, well…we need to begin.” Betty wiped her hands clean of crumbs with a lace handkerchief, “Can we have quiet, please everybody? Ellen is starting.”

Ellen popped the orange in her lunchbox and picked up her papers, “With the help of my class, I have jotted down some plans. Red Class lead roles are: Mary, Joseph, two lead shepherds, three kings, the innkeeper, angel Gabrielle and a drummer boy. Then there are the animals: a donkey for Mary, three camels for the kings, then cows, pigs, horses and a llama…”

“A llama?” Anne interrupted, “Are we setting it in South America? I’ve never heard the like!”

“It was Ben Spencer’s idea and the other children laughed. I said we had camels, so why not?” Ellen smiled.

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why not. We’ll be a laughing stock. This is what happens when you insist on asking the children. What did we tell you at the last meeting? A fiasco!” Anne snorted so loudly she blew the froth from her cappuccino.

“Yes, scrap the llama Ellen. There are plenty of parts for Red Class without adding unnecessary animals.” Betty smoothed her skirt, “Go on to the next class.”

Ellen sighed, “Ben will be very disappointed. Anyway…Green Class are the choir. So, then we have Yellow Class. They will be the host of angels. They’ll come on and sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Is that OK, Pamela?”

“Yes, lovely.” Pamela put her hands together as if in prayer, “I do love that hymn it’s…”

“I don’t think the boys in Pamela’s class will want to be angels.” Anne interrupted, “And the parents won’t like it.”

“Angels can be both sexes, Anne. The angel Gabrielle is a male.” Ellen said.

“I’m not giving a boy in my class the part of Gabrielle,” said Anne, “I have Hannah Evans in line for that. Such a beautiful child, with that mass of blonde curls.”

Ellen gritted her teeth.

Pamela said, “I think the boys in my class will be fine as angels when I explain the importance of them in the Nativity story.”

“Good, thank you Pamela.” said Ellen, “Next is Purple Class. They will be people in the town of Bethlehem and at the inn. They will perform ‘Rat at tat tat, there isn’t any room.’ Liz, are you happy with that?”

“Yes, sounds possible. I just hope you are providing directions and a script for this. We don’t want the children standing around like lemons. Christmas is a busy time…we can’t be expected to plan our own scenes.” Liz said.

“I have a script and stage directions in rough all ready. I thought each class could incorporate a simple dance into their songs too. I’ve got ideas written down for those. It’s all here.” Ellen tapped her folder, “You will have to spend time practising your scenes and dances in class though. There won’t be enough time to do it all in whole school rehearsals otherwise. Is that OK, Liz? You are PE Coordinator so I thought you’d be good with the dancing.”  

“Of course. Anyone would think we haven’t put on a play before.” Liz folded her arms.

“Orange Class next. I have you down for ‘While shepherds watched’. There will be shepherds, sheep and lambs. Is that fine for you, Carol?”

“Yes, perhaps Pamela and my class can join forces and if there are any boys who don’t want to be angels or girls that don’t want to be shepherds or sheep, we can swap around a bit?” Carol nodded at Pamela, “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Not this again, Ellen thought but said, “Then we come to your children Betty, Pink Class. I have you down for the Little Drummer Boy scene, like a marching band of soldiers come to pay respects to Baby Jesus.”

“I’m sure Mother Mary will be thrilled about that, when she’s just got the baby off to sleep.” Anne guffawed.

“What a brilliant idea, Anne. I’ll add that in as a joke.” Ellen scribbled in her folder.

“Interesting, something a bit different. Got to stop the parents falling asleep. They see a lot of Nativities over the years.” Betty said.

“I’m glad you like it, Betty. Finally, my children, Blue Class. We are going to be the stars in the bright sky. Anne, your class will do ‘Away in a Manger’ then my little ones come on as stars. Amy will be the main star singing and signing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ then the whole class join in. Then on come the three kings guided by the star to ‘We Three Kings.’ That’s your class again, Anne.” Ellen blurted the information quickly in the hope no one would say anything. 

“Hold on a minute.” Anne said, “Did you say Amy will be the main star? Leading roles are for Red Class.”

“It’s not a leading role, Anne. There are no lines.” Ellen explained.

“And Amy? Do you mean Amy Mackenzie, the Down’s girl?” Anne said shortly.

“Yes, there is only one Amy in my class and she is not a Down’s girl, Anne. She has Down’s Syndrome but that is only a small part of Amy. She is a hardworking, enthusiastic and funny child who loves to sing and she will be brilliant in the play.”

“Is it really a good idea, Ellen? Amy can be emotional at times. If she feels anxious or under pressure on the day, she might not perform well. She might have a tantrum, or burst into tears, or make a mistake.” Betty said. The other teachers nodded in agreement.

“So might any of the children.” Ellen argued, “Last year, poor Jack wet himself on stage. He was so nervous, he forgot to go to the toilet before he put his Humpty Dumpty costume on.”

Anne chortled, “One shouldn’t chuckle but the egg filled up and he left a little trail everywhere he went!”

“So sad.” Tears shone in Pamela’s eyes, “We do expect a lot from them.”

“Exactly,” said Carol, “and perhaps you’re expecting too much from Amy, Ellen?”

“Karen and I know what she is capable of. She signs the song so well. Can we give her a chance?” Ellen looked around at every teacher in the room, “Please don’t write Amy off.”

“All right,” said Betty finally, “Amy can have a chance but any problems, that will be it. We can’t risk the show being spoilt.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

By the third week in November, Ellen had written up the scripts, stage directions and costume requirements, printed them out and given copies to the staff. Rehearsals were due to begin in classrooms the following week. From December 1st, there would be two or three whole school rehearsals weekly, depending on how things were going. Anne Foster had allocated the lead roles to favoured children in her class and begun drawing the scenery.

The first week of December arrived and classrooms filled with the busy hum of children making decorations, cards and calendars for Christmas. Shiny paper chains hung from every ceiling and cotton wool bedecked displays of Father Christmas and snowmen covered the walls. Glitter trailed along the corridors as if some disco snail had been having a party. As the time of the show got nearer, and every day there was another practise, the children got noisier and more excitable.

One afternoon, Ellen felt fed up of Christmas so she suggested her class go on a Bear Hunt around the classroom. The children liked this game. It was something they had done often. They especially enjoyed the bit where they crawled under the tables to get to the bear cave. This particular afternoon, they were impatient and over-tired. Underneath the tables, there was pushing and shoving.

“Careful children, we must be quiet or the bear will hear us!” Ellen said, “Sssh!”

They carried along, creeping on their knees, a little quieter this time when suddenly Amy cried, “Ow, ow, ow!”

Someone had knelt on her hand. She screamed and screamed. Miss Williams tried to calm her but she would not stop. She held up the inflamed fingers to inspect them, then lashed out with her foot at the boy in front who had inadvertently done the damage, catching him on the thigh. It was Daniel Matthews, a child with a tendency to weep at the slightest provocation. He began to wail in time with Amy.

“Whatever is going on in here, Blue Class?” Mr Brown’s voice boomed from the classroom door, “Where is your teacher? Get out from those tables immediately. What shocking behaviour!”

Ellen scrambled out from under the table, “It’s all right, Mr Brown. We were playing a game and someone trod on Amy’s fingers. That’s all. We’re sorting it.”

“Oh, Miss James, you are there. I thought from the noise, the children were unsupervised. I see you have everything under control. I’ll leave you to it.” Mr Brown turned and left.

Across the corridor, Anne Foster loomed in her doorway, a Big Unfriendly Giant.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

That evening, as Ellen was leaving school, Betty Reid called from her office door.

“One moment, Ellen. I hear you had an incident with Amy today. You don’t think she is becoming overwrought with these rehearsals, do you?”

“No, it was nothing to do with the play. A slight accident, that’s all.” Ellen said, “Amy is doing brilliantly. I’m really proud of her.”

“Well, if you’re sure but remember what we agreed. Any more episodes and we’ll have to reconsider.” Betty went back to her office.

Pamela Gaunt came out of her classroom and smiled, “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“I bet that was Anne telling tales.” Ellen said, “It’s so annoying. The play is only next week, I don’t want Amy to have to stop now. She’s worked hard. She’s so excited, got her costume and everything.”

“It’s just jealousy, you know. The play is really good and you’re an excellent teacher. They can’t stand that. They think you make them look bad.”

“Thanks, Pamela. Why ever did I volunteer? I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Finally, the day of the Christmas show arrived. Ellen’s stomach bubbled with anxiety and excitement. She had worked herself to near exhaustion for the last month, lost count of the number of times they had practised the play, knew all the lines backwards and dreamt every night of shepherds, angels, kings and stars. The hall was packed to brimming with parents, grandparents and carers. There were no seats left, many stood at the back and the warm air steamed as damp coats, hats and scarves dried on the back of chairs. A tattered velvet curtain hung across the stage, behind which teachers and classroom assistants bumped and scraped with props and scenery. Maggie Barker played a medley of carols on the clunky piano.

Mr Brown approached the front of the stage and performed a short welcome before hurriedly skulking off. The audience clapped, the lights went down, and there was silence. Everyone waited, nothing happened. Whispers began to travel around the hall. Someone was pulling at the curtain. It appeared to be stuck.

“Excuse me.” Ellen apologised, as she stepped onto the stage and gave the velvet a hefty tug. The curtains swept back to reveal Mary, Joseph and a donkey beginning the arduous journey to Bethlehem. Ellen scooted out of the way and Maggie began the intro to ‘Little Donkey’.

After the initial hold up, the performance went smoothly. The audience seemed to enjoy it. They ‘Aaahed’ to the choir’s beautiful voices. There was a rumble of laughter at the Innkeeper’s emphatic, “No, we have no room. Go to the stable!”. They weren’t concerned by female shepherds wearing tea towels and male angels wearing tinsel. There was a gasp as Gabrielle nearly toppled from her bench as she gave her declaration to the shepherds, and an audible “Phew!” when a fellow angel grabbed her wings to steady her. Mary picked Baby Jesus up by his legs on a number of occasions. Several of the shepherds sat picking their noses as they looked upon the stable scene. ‘Away in a Manger’ brought tears to many eyes. Then it was time for Blue Class. Ellen took a deep breath.

Out trotted twenty-five little stars and spread themselves around the stage. There was a puzzled murmur, as one of the stars appeared to be a llama. In the centre stood Amy, the brightest, biggest star of all. The room went quiet, then Maggie began ‘Twinkle, twinkle’. Amy looked at the audience wide-eyed but no sound came from her mouth. Her hands remained still and stiff at her sides. Maggie repeated the intro. Amy stood silent. An expectant shuffling went round the audience. Ellen came forward and gave Amy a double thumbs up, willing her to start with a big smile. The piano tinkled for the third time. With a shared sense of relief, Amy began to sing and sign her song. She performed with gusto and, at the end, did a thumbs up and gave a huge grin. The whole class joined in, singing and signing the song. The audience clapped and cheered. Then Blue Class went off stage.

Amy returned leading the three kings to Baby Jesus. The play continued. Jesus was given Frankenstein as one of his presents. When the marching band woke the Baby and Mary was livid, there was much kind laughter from the crowd. Then the finale, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with not a dry eye to be seen in school. Even Anne Foster choked back a lump in her ample throat. Finally, each class entered the stage for their applause. Ellen couldn’t help but feel glowing pride when Amy and Blue Class received the loudest claps and cheers.

Then Mr Brown was back on stage calling up Ellen to receive her praise and a bunch of flowers. Anne Foster and Maggie Barker were thanked for their contribution too.

“Thank you so much.” Ellen said, “We couldn’t do it without the hard work of the children who were all wonderful. I’d like to give a special mention to Amy. She was a Christmas Star!”